It’s somewhat bad form to let out a loud WHOOP! at an academic conference. Nevertheless, that’s what I did yesterday morning at the AAAs when Jason Hirschorn’s fantastic “Media ReDEFined” daily newsletter informed me, in the words of the New York Times story, that:
A federal judge here on Wednesday ruled that the heirs of Jerome Siegel — who 70 years ago sold the rights to the action hero he created with Joseph Shuster to Detective Comics for $130 — were entitled to claim a share of the United States copyright to the character.
A jury trial will now take place to figure out how much Time Warner owes the Siegel’s since they asserted their desire to reclaim the copyright in 1999, and these dollars might include “Superman Returns,” which took $200 Million in the box office and a lot more since in home video, cable licensing, etc.
Of course, Time Warner will appeal.
So what does this mean?
The ever-shifting media landscape has just started morphing on another front. In addition to:
- Television fragmentation
- More movies spreading the box office ever-thinner
- Video games
- Simultaneous media consumption (SIMM)
- Online video
- Social media
We now have entrepreneurial lawyers helping artists and their heirs use loopholes in copyright law to their own advantage.
And so, big media continues to get a little bit smaller every week.
If I were going to college right now, I might major in folklore, since local culture (although “local” itself is changing its meaning rapidly) is going to assume a much greater significance in the next few years.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve been collecting comic books for 35 years, have an original cell from the Max Fleisher Superman cartoons from the 1930s, and I dig how the mythology of the character has matured since his debut in 1939.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were treated horribly by DC Comics and its later corporate parent, Time Warner. Time Warner has made astonishing profits from the Superman character, from the Christopher Reeve movies to Smallville to Superman Returns and with numberless other products in between.
Siegel and Shuster sold the character back in the 1930s for $130.
Has DC Comics / Time Warner been within its legal rights to say, “we bought it, we own it” even when the two creators were living in poverty? Sure. But the legal thing to do and the right thing to do aren’t always the same. When the first Christopher Reeve movie was a hit in the 1970s, Time Warner — perhaps feeling ashamed of itself — awarded a $20,000 annuity to each of the creators that, again according to NYT, was later increased to $30,000 until the two men died.
The Siegels are simply exercising their own legal rights.
Along with Disney and other big media companies, Time Warner has long lobbied Congress into extending copyright again and again and again in order to keep its lucrative characters out of the public domain. This isn’t in the public interest, but big media companies have a lot more resources than any public domain activists.
All of these things will, I hope, help to combine to create something that I’ve long wished for, an artistic middle class.
Resources on the Superman copyright story:
- Comic Book Resources Superman Copyright FAQ
- October 2007 Portfolio article about the case
- Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily post
Note: Joe Simon, co-creator of Marvel’s Captain America, settled his own copyright lawsuit back in 2003.