How Superman Dodged the Copyright Bullet (Part 1 of 2)

“Is it a bird?! Is it a plane?! No, it’s Superman… And he is disappearing from the DC universe! No, wait, he’s coming back?!”


The Modern Superman

This is what happened when Jerome Siegel’s family filed the suit for termination of the copyright, against DC, to gain back the Jerome Siegel’s share of rights in the iconic comic book superhero, Superman, created by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster. Judge Larson, of District Court, granted Siegel family their plea, which (the decision of district court) was later overturned by the 9th Circuit Court.

Origins of Krypton’s Last Son:

Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel created Superman in 1932, but before the Big Blue Boy Scout went from being the Last Son of Kypton, to the Man of Steel who documented his own adventures in the pages of Daily Planet, under the guise of Clark Kent, he was Bill Dunn, a homeless man who was turned into the Superman by Professor Ernest Smalley, and wielded the powers of telepathy and mind control.[1] This first Superman was published by Shuster and Siegel in a self-published comic, Science Fiction. With a lot of changes in the image and powers, the new Superman, with a distinctive blue leotard, red cape, and boots was born, and his superhuman ability to cover 1/8th of mile in a jump, leap buildings, lift heavy objects, repel bullets, and run faster than a locomotive. In his early iterations, Superman did not wear a costume and he did not possess any superpowers, and was a generic character based on a variety of sources from pulps and strips, and hardly as remarkable as the third and ultimate Superman, which was sold to DC by Shuster and Siegel, for $130, which was the price paid by DC for the first Superman story published in Action Comic #1 in 1938.

In no time, there were hordes of people running to the newspaper stands asking for the magazine with Superman in it, and what Siegel did with his typewriter, and Shuster did with his pen transformed, the comic book industry. Thus, the first “Superhero”[2] was born. Following the creation of Superman, DC Comics oversaw the creation, development, and licensing of the Superman character in a variety of media, including but not limited to radio, novels, live action and animated motion pictures, television, live theatrical productions, merchandise, and theme parks.” Currently, Superman is the star of Superman Action Comics and Superman: Earth One, among other comics, and he regularly appears in various other comic books, including most notably Justice League, Superman and Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman[3].



The First Depiction of Superman

An overview of the Copyright Laws (of USA) surrounding the Litigation (that we will be discussing in the next part of the article[4])

Although the Copyright Act of 1909 sought to provide authors and their families with an unalienable right to copyright renewal, Congress’ attempt to grant authors and their families a future copyright interest was substantially thwarted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Fred Fisher Music Co. v. M Witmark & Sons. In short, the Fisher Court found that authors could agree to assign their renewal interests. Eventually, the Court’s decision in Fisher played a role in encouraging Congress to revise American copyright law because of the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work’s value until after it has been exploited. To accomplish this, Congress created the right of termination of transfers, which would allow authors and their heirs to terminate prior copyright grants. The goal of the right of termination was to safeguard authors against un-remunerative transfers. Ultimately, this new right was incorporated into the Copyright Act of 1976. The right of termination appears in two sections of the Copyright Act of 1976. First, pursuant to S. 203, authors are vested with the power to “terminate the exclusive or nonexclusive grant of a transfer or license of copyright or of any right under a copyright, executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978”. This provision gave authors the ability to reclaim their previously granted works within the framework provided in the Act. Congress also extended this right to authors who had entered into such an agreement prior to January 1, 1978. More importantly, this section of the Act provides that “termination of the grant may be effected, notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary, including an agreement to make a will or to make any future grant.” Thus, all previous agreements between DC Comics and Siegel and Shuster became ineffective and the 1974 decision[5], which put Superman in the hands of DC Comics, was no longer worth the paper on which it was reported. But termination of grant has two exceptions to it:

  1. It does not apply to work for hire i.e. if an author creates something as an employee for a publisher that publisher has exclusive right over such work.
  2. It does not apply to derivative work, i.e. work created using an earlier work as a base but the author of such work should have put a substantial amount of his own creativity in it as well.

Taking advantage of the fact that Congress had effectively given the Siegel and Shuster families a second bite at the Superman apple and on April 3,1997, Siegel’s heirs, Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson, served seven separate notices of termination on DC, purporting to terminate several of Siegel’s potential grants in the Superman copyright, reigniting the battle for Superman.

(Read Part 2 where Akshay discusses the litigation and why Superman isn’t going anywhere just yet.)

[1] Rumor has it that creators of Prof. Xaviers were inspired by early iterations of Superman.

[2]Believe it or not the word “superhero” is a wordmark shared by DC and Marvel so any indi super powered being appearing in any comic published by any other publisher other than DC and Marvel is not or cannot be called a superhero, at least not in USA.

[3] Who, by the way, are dating in their latest storyline under New 52 revamp and this is the first time that Superman has been paired with a ‘better-half’ who equals him in every sense of the word  and not with a damsel in distress.

[4] Because Arshu says the ideal Length of online article should not be more than 800 words.

[5] An older claim filed by Siegel and Shuster to void their transfer of Superman to DC.


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