THE BATTLE FOR SUPERMAN HEATS UP - SUPERBOY RIGHTS CLAIMED, SHUSTER FOUND
Article reprinted from Comicon:
August 4, 2004:08/04/2004: "SIEGEL FAMILY TO REGAIN RIGHTS TO SUPERBOY?"
Numerous rumors have been flying of late regarding Superman, Superboy and the copyrights to these world famous characters, including whispers that the heirs of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have regained the rights to the characters.
While the rights appear to be caught in legal limbo, according to paperwork filed at the Library of Congress, in November 2002, Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson filed to terminate the assignment of Superboy's copyright to Time Warner, The Beat has learned. The termination becomes effective on November 17, 2004.
In addition, Mark Peary, the executor to Joe Shuster's estate, has filed a copyright assignment termination notice for Superman, effective October 26, 2013.
As well documented, Siegel and Shuster sold all rights to Superman to National Periodicals in 1938 for $130. Within just a few years, the character had become a sensation, with a radio drama and movie serial in addition to the comic.
In 1947, while the character remained enormously profitable, the duo were getting less and less work, and sued DC (as the company was then known) to regain the rights to Superman. Although the judge ruled in favor of DC, he assigned the rights to Superboy – a separate character who had recently been introduced in the pages of MORE FUN COMICS – to Siegel and Shuster, citing the fact that the editorially created character was an unfair infringement on their original copyright. According to Gerard Jones' upcoming history of the period MEN OF TOMORROW, Siegel and Shuster, devastated by the loss of the Superman suit and fearing DC's legal might, settled by selling the rights to Superboy back to DC for $100,000. In addition, so bad were feelings surrounding the lawsuit that their names were removed from the credits.
Siegel and Shuster continued to struggle financially for the next 20 years, with Siegel trying yet another unsuccessful legal bid to regain copyright to Superman in 1966. In the 70s, with the first Christopher Reeve Superman film coming out, and both men living on welfare, a grassroots campaign spearheaded by Neal Adams began to get the pair some recognition. Thanks to the efforts of a more sympathetic regime at DC, Siegel and Shuster's names were restored to Superman's credits and they were given a modest pension.
Cut to more recent history. In 1998, Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson (widow and daughter of Jerome, respectively) filed to terminate the copyright assignment of Superman to DC. Termination of copyright is part of the 1978 Copyright Act, specifically Section 304 (c), and was created to protect the rights of authors who had made disadvantageous deals.
Basically, the law states that authors or their heirs have a five year window to file for the termination of copyright assignment starting 35 years from the assignment.
(Superman's creation does not fall under work-for-hire, as all courts have agreed that Siegel and Shuster came up with the character independently. It's the original 1938 sale which has been upheld all these years. However, this still means that it was originally their copyright to assign, hence the potential ability to terminate the agreement.)
Legally speaking, if the Siegels' copyright termination to Superman were upheld, they would be entitled to 50% of all the profits of Superman since the revocation took effect on April 16, 1999.
Since the filing was made public, little has been reported about negotiations, which are ongoing. Time Warner is understandably less then eager to give up half the rights and profits to one of their most recognizable characters, who is even now being readied for a return to the big screen under director Bryan Singer. Should the copyright termination stand, the Siegel family would be entitled to a huge chunk of the profits from the upcoming movie.
While the Superman claim remains mired in legal red tape, the Superboy claim appears to be a bit more clear cut – Siegel and Shuster were granted ownership of the character in the 1947 decision, and their subsequent sale of the character to DC would come under the jurisdiction of Section 304 of the copyright law.
For everyone who has a headache after all this legal talk, the question may be, what's the bottom line: well, here's one word for you: SMALLVILLE, an enormously successful show about a young Clark Kent, who is about to become Superboy. Should the copyright termination stand, DC could be forced to make a very large payment to the Siegel family.
The story of Siegel and Shuster and how they sold away a multi-million dollar character for pennies remains almost as mythic as the superman they created. Their tale informs the Pulitzer Prize winning THE ADVENTURES OF CAVALIER AND CLAY, and several comics stories, including Rick Veitch's THE MAXIMORTAL. Indeed, so notorious is the story that it is often cited in discussions of copyright law. Thanks to that same law, as arcane as it may be to the layman, it's possible that the heirs of Siegel and Shuster have one more chance to regain the characters they have been fighting for for over 50 years.