Superman's bane: lawyers and Kryptonite

California court ruling calls ownership of Man of Steel into question

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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...a bunch of lawyers? In a landmark ruling, a California judge ruled the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel have had, since 1999, a valid legal claim to the copyright to the first Superman story, 1938's Action Comics #1. The ruling is the latest chapter in a long story rife with intrigue, suspense and litigation.

Created in 1932 by writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian artist Joel Shuster, the character remained unpublished until it was sold to National Allied Publications (the precursor to DC Comics) in 1938 for $130 and a contract to write stories for the character at $10 a page. According to comic book historian Jamie Coville, a 1941 magazine article stated that the entire team producing Superman comics made $75,000 at the time--of which $59,000 was to be split between the creators--when the licensing alone from the character made $1.5 million for the company. The unhappy Siegel and Shuster soon sued National for ownership. In 1948, the New York Supreme Court ruled they owned the copyright for the less popular Superboy and granted them each a $60,000 settlement. The pair sold Superboy back to National and left the company.

DC Comics filed Superman's trademark in 1938 for a term of 28 years, according to a 1973 lawsuit by the co-creators citing the copyright act of 1909. The copyright was renewed in 1966 for an additional 28 years and again in 1994 for 19 years. However, a copyright act passed in 1976 granted the creators or their heirs the ability to reclaim the copyright anytime from 1994 to 1999. Though he passed away in 1996, Siegel's estate filed to terminate the copyright in 1999 and Shuster's estate filed to reclaim the copyright following the end of DC's current claim in 2013. The Siegel claim was immediately appealed and has been in court ever since.

Last week, California Federal District Court Judge Stephen G. Larson not only ruled the Siegel estate claim was valid, but that it was valid retroactively to 1999. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, copyright lawyer Brendan McFeely clarified the ruling's implications: the Siegels only regained a share of the copyright within the United States, not internationally, and it's unclear what the ruling really means in terms of proportion. The court noted that many major elements of the Superman stories were created well after his first appearance.

"It's very likely that DC and Time Warner will have to cough up a very, very large amount of money to the Siegels," McFeely concluded.

The case goes to trial in May and is expected to be tied up in courts for a while. Superman Returns grossed $200 million in the U.S. and the five comic series regularly featuring the character sold 268,000 copies in Jan. 2008, a fairly typical month for sales. The Siegels regained the rights to Superboy via a ruling in Apr. 2006 (retroactive to Nov. 2004) and subsequently DC has restricted use of the Superboy name in print while the case is under appeal.

Superman appears monthly in Action Comics, Superman, Superman Confidential, Superman/Batman and Justice League of America and the adventures of a young Superman can be seen on TV's Smallville. As yet, little is known regarding the implications the Superman case will have on the various properties the character is involved in.

Since the Great Depression, Superman has stood for truth, justice and the American way. There's a danger now that he could now be subject to the advice of his attorneys.