The decision came down yesterday that the estate of Jerry Siegel has won the copyright to Superman – specifically, “all Superman material in Action Comics #1.” I’ve already seen in a few places people worrying about how this may BANKRUPT THE COMICS INDUSTRY BY SETTING A PRECEDENT!!!!one!!1! Or, more amusingly, the legion of retards commenting on the Newsarama blog getting indignant that the Siegel estate is trying to “destroy Superman” and that Siegel and Shuster’s estates are simply greedy bastards trying to steal money rightfully not theirs.
(Inevitably, whenever Newsrama posts a legal story, it gets a shitload of comments. Equally inevitably, the level of ignorance from people who think the law is just as simple to define as a Green Lantern power ring’s weakness is displayed in full force.)
Don’t worry. The implications are smaller than you think. The decision – which, incidentally, is really quite readable for non-lawyers – can be found here.
The core of the Siegel lawsuit is that Siegel and Shuster created Superman before they began working for DC. (He was originally intended for a comic strip, but they decided to sell him to DC for publication later.) Changes to the United States Copyright Act in the mid-70s gave creators one-time rights to request control of copyrighted works they sold in the years prior (on the basis that, given the change in copyright law – notably the extension for which works remained in private domain – they might have chosen not to sell). The Siegel case has been an example of this sort of attempted recursion.
The Superboy and Superman lawsuits over the past twenty-plus years have been (and this is personal opinion, having studied the case previously) basically one long case of DC Comics being moneygrubbing assholes, because on the merits of the case Siegel had this one in the bag (Shuster has a tougher case due to some contractual issues), and DC/Time-Warner have simply been fighting a stall game for as long as possible on the basis that the $1 billion (yes, billion) per year Superman franchise generated more money than it cost them to pay lawyers to stall.
In terms of implications for the comic industry as a whole – not much, because this isn’t a landmark decision or anything. Most of the major contentious or potentially contentious work-for-hire properties have been settled by contract or established in caselaw – Joe Simon on Captain America, Bill Kane on Batman, etc. (Maybe Steve Gerber’s estate can make a case for Howard the Duck, as I’ve heard he invented the concept independently of Marvel, but for most properties in comics it will generally be very hard to prove that the work was not created on a work-for-hire basis, if not contractually invalidated right from the get-go.)
In terms of the implications for Superman, they too are less than you think. Yes, the Siegel estates now control, to an extent, the copyright of Superman, but copyright for most of Superman’s fellow-concepts – such as Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, Metropolis, The Daily Planet, et cetera – rest firmly in DC’s hands. (Copyright in this regard is a bitch to navigate – Superman’s copyright covers his relationships with the aforementioned, but not necessarily the aforementioned. Lois Lane, who unlike most of the Superman mythos first appeared in that fateful first issue of Action Comics, may fall to the Siegels.) More importantly, DC Comics completely controls and owns the trademarks for Superman – the big red S, the curvy-text Superman logo, the costume, and so forth. Siegel’s estate is not going to take Superman away from DC; it’s functionally impossible to do so until Big Blue passes into the public domain, which won’t be for about another twenty years (barring another corporate-inspired extension of private domain rights, of course).
The major point is that Siegel’s estate will now be owed back pay, I believe, on their rights as owners of the Superman copyright – the amount of which, of course, be contested by DC as well, and on reasonable grounds (namely the “look, we did all the work for all those years” argument, which is not invalid). Also note that DC retains exclusive control of Superman’s international copyright – the Siegel decision merely reflects domestic copyright.
However, DC will have to start forking over monies generated by Superman, most notably those from Smallville – prior to this decision, DC was holding out that Smallville was a show about a “young Superman” rather than “Superboy,” to evade paying the Siegels their share of profits from the show in the wake of the decision that put the rights to Superboy in the hands of the Siegels last year. The point, obviously, is now moot. Of course, they won’t fork over everything, because DC is responsible for producing the show and the Siegel estate doesn’t want to bother with that work. It’ll be a straight-up profit-sharing deal.