Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: Truth, Justice, and the American Copyright Way

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Truth, Justice, and the American Copyright Way

A significant and intriguing copyright decision came down this week in California. Seventy years ago, two young professional sold a character and a story to DC Comics. The character was Superman, and the team was paid a full $130 between them to buy the concept. Now, due to a reversion clause written into the copyright reform act of the late 70s, the heirs of Jerry Siegel have been awarded their portion of the copyright of Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1. (For reasons I can't explain, Siegel's partner, Joe Shuster, didn't have any heirs eligible to pursue his share of the rights under these same provisions.)

Everybody seems to be linking to Jeff Trexler, who has a nice overview. He also makes some room to provide the entire 72-page decision in PDF form. Trexler also offers a FAQ on the case.

Although there's been a fair bit of speculation on "what it all means," except for the rights to Superman going back where they belong and the Siegels getting a larger piece of the pie, I'm not sure it means much of anything. I don't imagine that the Siegels will be averse to making a deal with DC Comics to continue publishing the character. They could, in theory, develop the character and sell him elsewhere (although DC could continue to publish--read the decision for a few specifics), but they only have rights to the manifestation of Superman in the Action #1 story. His origin is only vaguely sketched out, his costume (including his S-shield) has changed somewhat, and he can't fly yet. So the character they could take elsewhere isn't the character as we've come to know him. So they'll work out a far more lucrative deal with DC than they ever had before.

There are still a a fair number of details yet to be worked out, and I'll be shocked if DC doesn't appeal. We're not done yet.

One interesting side note in all this was mentioned by Heidi MacDonald in a comment at Nikki Finke's post about the situation, that it's widely believed that the provision in the 1976 copyright revision was inspired by Siegel and Shuster's plight, which had been publicized a short time earlier. I've heard that myself, but I'm not aware of any evidence to back it up. But presuming for the moment that it is correct, it proves that sometimes justice can be very poetic indeed.


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