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Who Owns the Man of Steel?

Now that the new Superman movie has globally collected more than $600 million, making it a colossal hit (not always a sure thing, since the last two lost money), it seems like a good time to review the legal conflict over who gets to rake in those profits. You may be forgiven if you’ve lost track of who owns the rights to the protagonist of Man of Steel. On the other hand, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the legal seesaw between the heirs of Superman’s creators and Warner/DC landed solidly in favor of the corporation earlier this year, just before the release of its big-budget tent-pole movie.

An appeal of a ruling against the heirs of Joe Shuster is pending, but it is before the same appeals court that ruled against the Siegel heirs in January. Warner Senior Vice-President of Corporate Communications Paul McGuire told the Journal a ruling on that appeal is expected soon.

Marc Toberoff, attorney for the heirs, vowed to continue the fight. Warner, however, considered itself the winner of not just the battle but the war. “This is a great day for Superman, for his fans, for DC Entertainment and for Warner Bros,” the company announced, following the court’s latest ruling against Siegel’s heirs. If this is the end of what has been an epic struggle over control of one of the world’s most valuable properties, how happy an end is it? Is it really a great day for Superman, his corporate owners, and his fans? And what kind of day is it for comics creators?

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The story so far: In April the original $412 check from DC to writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster (which included a line item showing $130 for rights to Action Comics #1) sold at auction. (The artifact netted its owner $160,000.) After the series became a huge success, establishing the comic book’s dominant genre and setting its template for decades to come, the two men tried to negotiate a share of the property and a higher rate of pay. Instead, they were pushed out the door by the end of World War II and DC hired other hands to continue the title.

Over the years, Siegel and Shuster pursued various legal efforts to gain a piece of Superman’s expanding multimedia profits, with Siegel, at one point, placing a public “curse” on the first Superman movie. Legalities aside, DC recognized that the two creators had a strong case in the court of public opinion. The publisher negotiated increasingly conciliatory monetary settlements, while keeping a tight grip on its super-property. The first legal round was temporarily resolved in the 1940s, when DC agreed to a one-time $94,000 payment. In the 1970s, with its first major Superman film hitting screens and Siegel firing off furious press releases, DC attempted to dodge a potential public relations disaster by authorizing a $20,000-a-year annuity for each creator. Later the amount was raised to $30,000 a year.

Nevertheless, when Shuster died in 1992, he was blind and broke — so broke that his closest relatives, sister Jean Shuster Peavy and brother Frank Shuster, had to ask DC for enough money to cover his burial costs. DC agreed to pay $25,000 a year to Peavy (and to Shuster if Peavy dies before him), but also used the occasion to fortify itself against any challenges to its copyrights. In the words of the 1992 letter of agreement signed by the Shuster heirs and DC, “this agreement fully settles all claims to any payments or other rights or remedies which you may have under any other agreement or otherwise, whether now or hereafter existing regarding any copyrights, trademarks, or other property right in any and all work created in whole or in part by your brother, Joseph Shuster, or any works based thereon.”

The agreement established dire consequences should Peavy or Shuster make any future claims: “If, despite the terms of this agreement, either of you assert any such claim of right for any reason, you agree to refund to us, upon the making of any such assertion, all amounts previously paid to you hereunder, and we will have no obligation to make any further payments under this agreement.”

On the face of it, DC’s lawyers might seem overly eager in this document to secure rights that DC already owned. However, a window was about to open under copyright law that would, for the first time, allow Siegel and Shuster and their heirs to reclaim ownership of Superman, or at least all aspects of Superman deriving from the first issues of Action Comics. Previously, a copyright term could last a total of 56 years, after which, the work fell into Public Domain. Under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the 1998 Sonny Bono Term Extension Act, the term of a copyright was extended to 50 years beyond the death of the author. However, when a copyright reached its 56th year, the year it would formerly have expired, the original authors or their heirs were granted a five-year period during which they could reclaim the copyright. For Superman, that window opened in 1995.

As much as it may seem that DC’s lawyers had this possibility in mind when they drafted the 1992 agreement, Toberoff has argued that the agreement was never intended as a bulwark against the author’s right of termination. His case rests primarily on two points: 1) the vagueness of the agreement, which never even mentions Superman by name, and 2) the fact that in 1992 the Copyright Act of 1976 applied only to immediate heirs — spouse and children. Because it was not until 1998 that the termination rights were extended to an author’s estate in whatever form, Toberoff has maintained that Peavy and Shuster could not have signed away rights in 1992 that they didn’t yet have.

There was a reason for these changes in the law. It had long been recognized that copyrights had taken on a value undreamed of at the time authors like Siegel and Shuster were selling their rights for a song. Not only have copyright terms grown far beyond their original limits as Congress has diligently striven to keep the aging Mickey Mouse franchise from the Public Domain, but every day brings a new technological app for iconic intellectual properties. The Copyright Law of 1976 was designed to allow authors to share some of the multiplying fruits of their creative labors. If the acquisition of an intellectual property is terminated during the five-year window allowed under the law, the corporate owner of the property is forced to renegotiate with the original creator or the creator’s heirs.

In the comics field, artists and writers commonly create works under conditions of employment. In such cases, the law treats the employer as the “author” of the work. In the case of Siegel and Shuster, however, Superman was created by them before they began to work for DC. They and their heirs, therefore, were entitled to take advantage of the window of opportunity provided under copyright law. The Siegels filed for termination of DC’s Superman copyrights in 1997, with an effective date of 1999.

Mark Peary, Shuster’s nephew, contacted Toberoff, an attorney with a string of successes for high-profile clients in the entertainment industry, to help Shuster’s heirs terminate their share of the copyright assignments to DC. At the same time, Siegel’s heirs, through their attorney, Kevin Marks, were filing copyright terminations papers and negotiating with DC and its parent company, Warner. Toberoff attempted to represent the heirs of both Siegel and Shuster, but Marks had already written DC to agree to a settlement. This letter, which would ultimately prove to be a major stumbling block to Toberoff’s campaign, began, “This is to confirm our telephone conversation of October 19, 2001. The Siegel Family (through Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larsen, the majority owners of the terminated copyright interests) has accepted D.C. Comics’ offer of October 16, 2001 in respect of the ‘Superman’ and ‘Spectre’ properties.” Included in DC/Warner’s offer to the Siegel family were a $1 million signing bonus and royalties of six percent of DC’s percentage of gross profits from the use of the properties, as well as medical and dental benefits for Laura and her children. In return, the Siegel heirs were to transfer all Superman and Spectre rights to DC/Warner. Furthermore, even “at the end of the U.S. Copyright term, the Siegel Family agrees that it will not exploit the Property, even though it is in the public domain.” In other words, the agreement bound Siegel’s heirs to be the only people on Earth who could not make use of the Superman property even after it finally enters the public domain.

man-o-steel-2Neither Joanne Siegel, who died in 2011, nor her daughter personally signed any document spelling out the terms of this agreement. DC offered a subsequent, more detailed letter of agreement, but Siegel wrote a response accusing DC’s lawyers of changing the terms in ways that would significantly affect the family’s liabilities and open loopholes that could siphon away payments due to the heirs. As a consequence of this disagreement, the Siegel family has not received any of the promised money. Toberoff, acting on behalf of the Siegel heirs since late 2002, has maintained that these letters did not constitute a binding contract. He has gone on record as saying that the Siegel heirs should get a much higher percentage of profits than the agreement allows. DC, backpedaling from the longer letter of agreement that had drawn Siegel’s objections, has embraced the initial letter as a done deal. The U.S. District Court agreed with Toberoff and issued a summary judgment in 2008 placing the Superman and Spectre copyrights in the hands of the Siegel family.

DC/Warner appealed and obtained a reversal upholding the letter as a binding contract on the grounds that it had been signed by the Siegel family’s legal representative. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit instructed the U.S. District Court to revisit the case with the understanding that an agreement had already been reached between DC and the Siegel heirs. As a result, in April, Superman bounced back into the custody of DC/Warner.

And on the other front, the District Court ruled against the Shuster heirs in October on the grounds that the 1992 agreement forbade Shuster’s heirs from making any claim on Superman-related properties.

In its statement following the April Siegel ruling, DC/Warner said, “Today’s ruling vindicates DC Comics’ long-held position that it entered into a binding agreement with the Jerry Siegel family in 2001. The Court’s decision paves the way for the Siegels finally to receive the compensation they negotiated for and which DC has been prepared to pay for over a decade. We are extremely pleased that Superman’s adventures can continue to be enjoyed across all media platforms worldwide for generations to come.”

Toberoff, who is working entirely on a contingency basis, still has options. His appeal of the Shuster ruling is pending and he can again appeal the District Court’s latest ruling against the Siegels to the Ninth Circuit. Because litigation is still pending, he was reluctant to talk on the record about the cases, but he was unable to take DC/Warner’s boastful press release lying down. He gave the Journal the following exclusive statement:

Warner Bros.’ proclamations of “a great day for Superman and his fans” is disingenuous and manipulative. The truth is that this case is about Siegel’s and Shuster’s families exercising the rights Congress gave them under the Copyright Act, Warner Bros.’ refusal to respect those rights, and its attempt to crush them at all cost.

Congress expressly intended that the Copyright Act’s termination provisions give authors and their families a chance after 56 long years (section 304(c)) or 75 years (section 304(d)) to finally participate in the increased value of their works by recovering their copyrights and then entering into new licenses with the original grantees (like DC/Warner) that better reflect that market value. This is all the Siegel and Shuster families ever wanted to do, and DC/Warner knows it. The release of Man of Steel or taking Superman away was never a real issue, nor does this make any practical sense as this was about the recovery of partial U.S. rights only. Warner Bros. just wanted to avoid paying the families the reasonable value of their rights.

Warner’s statement that they have been prepared to pay the Siegels “for over a decade” is also completely false and belied by the record. First, Warner flatly denied the validity of the Siegels’ termination rights. Second, the 2001 negotiations fell apart because Warner conditioned any payments on all sorts of new one-sided accounting terms that sharply reduced agreed upon payments to the Siegels. Warner/DC’s alleged “October 19, 2001 agreement” expressly called for payments and accountings by March, 2002, which it did not honor. In fact, Warner/DC never even claimed there was an agreement until years later in November 2004, and then, only after the Siegels were forced to file suit for declaratory relief to uphold their rights. Warner’s First Counterclaim was that the Siegels’ termination rights were invalid (i.e, that they owed the Siegels nothing). Warner’s Fourth Counterclaim that DC had a purported 2001 agreement with the Siegels was alleged in the alternative if, and only if, Warner’s First Counterclaim was denied and Siegel’s statutory termination was upheld. In other words, if Warner/DC had prevailed on its First Counterclaim (it lost), it wanted to pay the Siegels nothing. Similarly, if Warner/DC prevails against Joe Shuster’s family in the pending 9th Circuit appeal, they will pay the Shusters nothing.

None of this is what Congress intended in the Copyright Act. If denying the Siegel and Shuster families their fair rights is “a great day,” it is a great day for Warner’s already overflowing bank account, and I think that most people with a brain intuitively understand that. What did Abe Lincoln say? “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t …” Well, you know the rest.

Whether these rulings mark a great day for Superman or just a great day for Warner’s bank account, it is safe to say that comics creators have seen worse days. Even if DC’s initial letter of agreement with the Siegel family is upheld and Toberoff never gets to go back to the negotiating table, the realization of the terms in that letter will be the first time any comics author (or comics author’s estate) has been able to successfully benefit from the negotiating opportunities intended by the Copyright Act of 1976.

If the difficulties comics creators have run into trying to make use of the Copyright Act doesn’t say enough about the low position of comics on the social totem pole, consider this: The share that the Siegel and Shuster heirs have been fighting for is a percentage of DC’s percentage of Warner’s profits from Superman — and DC, the publisher that launched Superman into the stratosphere, gets only five percent of Warner’s gross profits on a Superman movie. To put it in perspective, Nicolas Cage, who was once attached to star in an earlier version of Man of Steel, is contractually promised a higher percentage of the current movie’s profits than the entire DC Comics division, even though he is not actually in the final product.

Of course, Warner Bros. is more of a big-ticket operation than DC, but the way profits are divvied up also serves as yet another firewall between comics authors and the sometimes immense profits that their creations generate — in the unlikely event that a comics creator ever wins a copyright case.

NOTE: This article has been slightly edited.


36 Responses to Who Owns the Man of Steel?

  1. patrick ford says:

    The best, and really the only good, article on the case I’ve seen in the comics press.

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  3. This is such a shameless piece of demagoguery. These broadsides against the the Big Two legacy comics publishers are a TCJ tradition, of course. They were almost always dishonest, but they used to be a little more competently researched.

    Michael Dean starts things off with this bit:

    There is no contract reflecting the original transaction by which writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster assigned the copyrights for the first issues of Action Comics to DC

    Oops.

    The errors, distortions, and omissions of relevant facts continue from there until the end. I’d catalog them, but time is short, and I’m already way overdue on an article that sorts through Michael’s dungheap about the Kirby art-return situation. In general, though, never trust a writer who attacks Marvel or DC by quoting dollar amounts from decades past without telling you the value after inflation. There’s no better tell that the writer is jerking you around.

    For those interested in the Superman case, I recommend Jeff Trexler’s posts about it over at The Beat. Of particular interest are his links to the exhibit troves of contracts, correspondence, and other documents related to the case. I’d suggest Michael take the time to go through them, but I’m afraid it would just make him a more slippery liar than he already is.

  4. Michael Dean says:

    Robert,

    The line about the check being the only contract has been fixed. Thanks for pointing it out. There is a lot of such misinformation on the Web, and I had intended the essay to be something of a corrective, so I’d hate to end up perpetuating a falsity. I also agree that Jeff Trexler has done a good job of posting documents in these cases.

    Having fixed your only factual correction, however, I don’t see that it has any effect on my overall piece or its conclusions. The rest of your comments seem to be typically substanceless, trollish hyperbole.

  5. Michael–

    It’s not my only factual correction; I just don’t have time at the moment to research and draft a full rebuttal. Why don’t we just go through the rest of the fourth paragraph.

    You write:

    After the series became a huge success, establishing the comic book’s dominant genre and setting its template for decades to come, the two men tried to negotiate a share of the property and a higher rate of pay. Instead, they were pushed out the door by the end of World War II and DC hired other hands to continue the title.

    FACT: In a contract dated December 19, 1939, DC agreed to double Siegel and Shuster’s Superman comic-book page rate. Further, they granted Siegel and Shuster a 5% royalty of monies earned from non-publication licensing, which specifically included “radio, motion pictures, the toy and novelty field and others [...]“.

    FACT:In July 1940, DC increased Siegel and Shuster’s Superman comic-book page rate by 75% over the new amount.

    FACT: In February 1942, their comic-book page rate was increased by 10% over the new amount.

    FACT: In August 1942, their page-rate was increased by 20% over the most recent amount.

    FACT: In March 1943, DC agreed to pay Siegel $200 for each issue of a Superman comic book he did not contribute to. Shuster would be paid $150 for each comic book he did not contribute to. In 2013 dollars, these amounts are, respectively, about $2700 and $2025.

    FACT: In June 1943, DC increased their total compensation from each Superman comic to $1000 per publication. In today’s dollars, that’s approximately $13,500.

    (Above facts taken from documents in this exhibit trove.

    In other words, they didn’t just try to negotiate a share of the property and a higher rate of pay, they succeeded on multiple occasions, at least with regard to payment. This was over and above the separate deal they negotiated in 1938 for producing a syndicated newspaper strip.

    They did not negotiate a share of the ownership with DC, but there’s no evidence that they ever sought to. I’m not 100% sure of this, but the copyright law of the time may not have permitted negotiating percentages of the ownership. In any case, that’s a moot point.

    FACT: Both Siegel and Shuster were regular contributors to DC’s Superman publications until they sued the company in 1947. Their last new Superman story in the 1940s was published in World’s Finest #31 (November-December 1947).

    In other words, they weren’t “pushed out.” They bit the hand that fed them, and the hand was understandably pulled away.

    Incidentally, in an article last year, I estimated their cumulative income from Superman’s first decade to be approximately $5 million in 2012 dollars.

    Now, I can go through your every paragraph as I have above. The article is that bad. As far as misinformation on the Web goes, it seems far more part of the problem than any solution.

    In the interests of truth and honesty, you should just take it down and apologize.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    @Robert Stanley Martin.There seems to be a basic inability to read English here. The facts cited above don’t contradict what Michael Dean wrote except on a minor factual point (Siegel and Shuster stopped being given work by DC in 1947 not “the end of World War II”). I like getting facts right, so it’s good to know something happened in 1947, not two years early. Whether they were “pushed out” or whether “the hand was understandably pulled away” (a rather vacuous metaphor, I have to say) is a matter of interpretation, not of “fact.”

    Everything else Michael Dean wrote is perfectly compatible with the “facts” you present. You seem to think that if someone writes about a subject with different language than you use or puts a different interpretive spin than the one you have, they are being dishonest. But no one is under any obligation to view the world through your eyes.

    We should also ponder the political, moral and economic implications of this sentence: “They bit the hand that fed them, and the hand was understandably pulled away.” What you are saying is that freelancers have an obligation to grovel to their corporate employers and never demand any rights or go to court. “The hand” (i.e. corporate power) deserves to have complete legal and political domination. If you grovel nicely, “the hand” will shower you with gifts; if you demand more, “the hand” has the right to vindictively punish you.

    Is “the hand” the great and benevolent God we should worship? The figures Robert Stanley Martin cites certainly seem generous at first glance but have to be placed against the fact that the characters and concepts Siegel and Shuster invented have generated billions in revenue over the years. For someone who has a billion dollars, $5 million is the same as $500 is for someone has has $100,000. For DC c0mics the money they paid out to Siegel and Shuster was always chicken feed.

    And of course there are moral issues that transcend questions of money. I happen to think Siegel and Shuster have a moral right to at least part ownership of the characters and concepts they created. Does Robert Stanley Martin disagree?

  7. patrick ford says:

    Does anyone here really think this has anything to do with Siegel and Shuster? Because most of us know what this is really all about. And it has nothing to do with Siegel and Shuster.

  8. I suppose we can argue issues of interpretation ’til the end of time. But I’m having a hard time sleeping tonight because of the weather, so I might as well pass the time parsing words. It doesn’t require that much work. Those reading can decide to what extent Michael’s portrayal is misleading.

    Here we go:

    the two men tried to negotiate a share of the property and a higher rate of pay. Instead, they were pushed out the door

    When one writes “tried to” and does not indicate success in what was “tried,” the implication is “tried and failed.” Now, if one tried and succeeded, one would write “tried and succeeded,” or, more succinctly, just “succeeded.”

    The implication of what Michael wrote is that Siegel & Shuster tried and failed to negotiate any improved compensation in their business relationship with DC.

    That implication is emphasized by following the phrase with “Instead, they were pushed out.” The inference to be drawn from that is not only did Siegel & Shuster try and fail in their negotiation efforts–and since Michael did not include any qualifier, e.g. “some,” he therefore means all their negotiation efforts–but DC responded by ending their business relationship with the pair.

    Is Michael, at the very least, playing fast and loose with his language in order to leave the reader with an erroneous view of what happened? I guess those reading this can decide.

    No one has an obligation to view the world through my eyes. But there is a difference between ambiguity and deceit. Actually, in historical and factual accounts of things, I would think that ethics dictate that ambiguity is something to be minimized if not outright eliminated. If you’re a reporter and/or a historian, and you’re subjecting your readers to ambiguity when it can be avoided, I think it’s safe to say you’re either deceitful or incompetent. Either way, your writing shouldn’t be seeing print.

    I certainly did not intend to imply that “freelancers should grovel.” All I meant to say is that if one sues another party, one can expect that party to end their relationship with you as a matter of course. I wouldn’t have thought that trope ambiguous, but I see that if I’m to believe Jeet is writing in good faith, then I obviously confused him. I do apologize to everyone who shared his confusion. To expand on my previous paragraph, perhaps tropes should be avoided in historical/factual writing altogether. There’s always going to be someone too dumb to pick up on even the most obvious ones.

    As for Siegel and Shuster’s compensation, I certainly would have sought to negotiate a much, much more lucrative deal for them had I been their agent. (I wouldn’t describe the money they received as generous, but it’s not onerously unreasonable, either.) However, the agreements they signed have reasonably straightforward language and there’s no evidence of any illegal coercion on DC’s part. Siegel and Shuster also appear to have been competent adults when they signed the contracts and otherwise did business with DC. As such, they should be expected to abide by the terms of what they agreed to. I wish it had worked out better for them (they unfortunately were their own worst enemies much of the time), but life isn’t always fair.

    To think that people should not have to abide by good-faith agreements because they don’t work out as well as one would like is childish at the very least.

    No individual has made anything close to a billion dollars off Superman. Most of those making money off Superman in some way are hardly rich. A tiny few, mainly celebrity actors, have made eight-figure amounts. By the way, I’m pretty sure the eight-figure Superman income club includes Siegel, Shuster, and their estates at this point. I’m all but positive they’ve made more than anyone in comics who’s worked on the property.

    I’m all in favor of moral rights for authors that include an inviolable minimum royalty for the life of the author. It’s too bad that isn’t the law in this country. Ownership is a more complex matter, but in general I’m in favor of that, too.

  9. Mark Mayerson says:

    Robert Stanley Martin’s figure of $5 million in 2012 dollars is a useless figure. It may be Siegel and Shuster’s gross from DC, but it doesn’t take into account how much it cost to run the studio that produced the comics. How much did they pay in overhead for studio space, phones, postage, etc? How much did they pay in page rates or salaries to other contributors over that time period? Without knowing how much Siegel and Shuster netted as opposed to grossed, there is no way to know how much money they actually kept. And there is no way to know how much they kept vs. the profits the corporation made on Superman during the same time period.

  10. Jeet Heer says:

    “No individual has made anything close to a billion dollars off Superman.” This would be a relevant point if this were a dispute between individuals. But in fact, while one set of parties consists of individuals (Siegel, Shuster and their estates) another party consists of a corporation (a legal person, of course, but not an individual). The corporate owners of Superman have, as a collectivity, certainly made more than a billion dollars from the characters created by Siegel and Shuster.
    Mark Mayerson makes an excellent point, one worth expanding on. Let’s stipulate that S&S made $5,000,000 in current funds in the 1940s. They didn’t get that money for sitting on the sofa eating chocolate. In fact, they were running a studio creating Superman stories, including new characters and ideas that still serve as the bedrock of the DC universe (including the idea of Superboy). And they were paying out money running that studio. All those comics they and their staff produced had value, and made money for DC (which would hardly have paid for them and published them out of charity).

  11. javan says:

    I though Jack Kirby created Superman and Stan Lee took credit for it…

  12. If Siegel and Shuster choose to make expenditures such as running a studio, why should that be DC’s concern? DC didn’t care where they produced the material, whether in a studio, in their homes, or elsewhere. Most comics creators then and now probably work at home. I don’t think I’ve ever heard one complain about that being a professionally onerous situation. Siegel and Shuster choosing to blow money on extravagances is on their heads, not DC’s.

    Creating comics is a very low-overhead undertaking. The cost of materials, postage, and so forth is negligible.

  13. Greg Fontaine says:

    You’re being far too easy on these spendthrifts. Working at home is a further extravagance. They should have moved back home with their mothers and had mom erase pencils and fill in spot blacks for them while watching her soaps.

  14. Mark Mayerson says:

    Paying people in order to meet DC’s demand for Superman stories (the demand being higher than Siegel or Shuster were capable of supplying themselves) is clearly not an “extravagance.” The cost of labor is not “negligible.” Siegel and Shuster were running a business and all businesses have expenses. The fact that a movie grosses $100 million does not mean that the studio that produced it made $100 million. If you don’t understand that, you have no business throwing dollar figures around.

  15. There’s an impolitic choice of words in my comment, specifically the “blow money” bit, but the point remains. Having a studio and/or office outside one’s residence is very much an optional business expense for a comics creator. Many creators, including several who were making money hand over fist, don’t bother with it. If it can be afforded, great, but it’s not a necessity. Siegel and Shuster’s decision to have one should not mitigate one’s perception of their income in the slightest.

  16. DC was perfectly willing to commission Superman stories independently of Siegel and Shuster, and they did so. And Siegel and Shuster weren’t being cheated by this, either. DC agreed to pay them for all Superman publications in which their work did not appear. A studio is optional overhead, period.

  17. Pallas says:

    Although Robert has spent a lot of time arguing business details, his real position seems to be some mixture of “the company is always right” and “a bargain is a bargain- per the bargain the Superman creators are morally entitled to nothing beyond the original paycheck”. The business details seems to be a red herring.

  18. I feel like the business expenses of Siegel and Shuster are a distraction. DC had business expenditures as well, and so does everybody.
    I know that issues of ownership and creator rights is not a new struggle in comics, but I do feel like the moral argument has shifted to a place that is fundamentally irreconcilable. People are really arguing against the economic structure of capitalist investment. Which is fine, but I think the validity of that argument is tied pretty strongly the fact that at least in some ways there are now other options. There weren’t in the 1940s though. I don’t feel that it makes a ton of sense to argue from this point of view retroactively.
    Superman wouldn’t exist without DC or some similar corporation willing to publish it as much as it wouldn’t have existed without Siegel and Shuster or some other creative team to create it. What people are upset about is that Capitalism is fundamentally “unfair” in the sense that it only values capital. The people with money to invest are the ones who win. That’s the way the world was in the 40s and it’s largely the way the world is now, but there are other options now. Moral arguments don’t really hold any weight in that context. It’d be nice if they did, but they don’t, and I’m not convinced of the value in arguing about what’s fair when what’s relevant is who has power.
    I’m a creator and I care about these rights, but I think we either need to be thinking about alternative models (probably ones that don’t involve creators ever becoming millionaires and possibly don’t involve creators “owning” their work either) and/or working towards organizing creators so that they can exercise the power necessary to actually enforce a better situation. Copyrights, IP and ownership are capitalist ideas and you have to have weight to fight in that system if you want to have a say. Fairness and morality are largely irrelevant unless you have the power to enforce them.

  19. patrick ford says:

    Does anyone even read anymore?

    “The truth is that this case is about Siegel’s and Shuster’s families exercising the rights Congress gave them under the Copyright Act, Warner Bros.’ refusal to respect those rights, and its attempt to crush them at all cost.

    Congress expressly intended that the Copyright Act’s termination provisions give authors and their families a chance after 56 long years (section 304(c)) or 75 years (section 304(d)) to finally participate in the increased value of their works by recovering their copyrights and then entering into new licenses with the original grantees (like DC/Warner) that better reflect that market value. This is all the Siegel and Shuster families ever wanted to do, and DC/Warner knows it. “

  20. Michael Dean says:

    Just so Robert doesn’t think I’m (perish the thought) ignoring him, let me express my appreciation for his efforts at filling in details in the overall story. This piece was a rough summary put together while traveling, so I’m open to any factual adjustments. Having said that, I don’t see anything else in Robert’s comments (as interesting as they may be) that merits any correction to my essay. I don’t think readers need to be told that the dollar is not worth the same today that it once was. As for the increases in Siegel’s and Shuster’s incomes during the decade following Superman’s launch, I would be surprised if there had been none. For one thing, the median income throughout the country tripled during that same period. It was especially a boom time for comics, and Superman was a cash bonanza at the very peak of that boom. I didn’t mean to imply that Siegel and Shuster saw no benefit at all from Superman’s growing popularity. The most pertinent thing, it seemed to me, was that they did not feel they were getting a fair share of Superman-generated revenue and their efforts to obtain such were followed by their ouster from DC. My statement that they were gone from DC by the end of WWII was intended to use the war as a vague chronological reference point. The phrasing could have been better, but it is not inaccurate. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to Robert for pointing readers to the precise date.

    I’m also very appreciative of the other commenters here. Their statements have been close to my own thinking.

  21. patrick ford says:

    A lot of the back story concerning Siegel and Shuster is just part of Warner’s smoke designed to obscure the simple fact at the heart of the case. I’ve got to say Warner has done a tremendous job doing this. Many fans are focused on the supposed greed, foolishness, or supposed irresponsibility of Superman’s creators. Even if you assume the worst about S&S it doesn’t change the fact they or their heirs have the right to apply for copyright termination. Warner, and for that matter Disney, have done such a good job with their smoke an mirrors most fans still don’t have the slightest idea that it simply doesn’t matter if creators sold their copyrights. You will hear person after person say, “They were big boys. They knew the deal. They knew what they were selling.” Comments like that are the comments of an uninformed person. In fact paperwork acknowledging the creator had a copyright (or publication rights) to sell actually works to the advantage of the creator.

    To deal with a couple of things which don’t matter:
    WWII is part of the long tale because prior to entering military service (and god forbid if Siegel was drafted, cause I’m not going to check) Siegel created Superboy and tried to sell the character to DC which rejected the idea.
    This actually ties into the Bob Kane lawsuit over Batman. Kane’s 1946 contract with DC has a fishy odor about it. Kane’s father negotiated the contract with DC in 1946 long after the first appearance of Batman in 1939. At the same time tDC was facing what they probably viewed as a much more serious legal challenge from Siegel and Shuster. In fact Siegel and Shuster are said to have suggested to Kane he file a lawsuit.
    What had happened is S&S created Superboy prior to WWII. DC rejected the idea. When S&S returned from military service they found DC had gone ahead and introduced a Superboy character without compensating them.
    What is odd about the Kane lawsuit is Kane was born in 1915 which should have been easy for DC to find out. So Kane was already 24 years old in 1939. It should have been a snap for DC to find out when Kane was born. It’s not like DC didn’t have legal resources they employed famed attorney Louis Nizer when they filed suit against Fawcett. It isn’t like Kane was born in Mongolia. He went to the famous DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City. His family was actually middle-class and there would almost certainly have been school records or birth records easily found. As a matter of fact anyone here have the DC Treasury Edition of BATMAN #1? Go find it and look at the profile of Bob Kane DC published in 1940 as part of the original comic book. It says “Bob Kane was born twenty-four years ago…” In any event most fans don’t realize the time line and assume Kane cut his deal right at the start in 1939. That’s wrong in was in 1946.
    So Kane got an exception deal with DC while DC fought S&S much harder. It’s generally assumed part of S&S continuous financial difficulties (even considering the money they got from DC) had to do with very high legal fees they had to pay.

    None of this has anything to do with the 1978 copyright act.

  22. A quick note:

    Siegel’s Superboy proposal had little in common with what DC published. It was not the Smallville concept. Siegel’s idea had the character in everyday clothes using his powers to play pranks on people. It was a gag strip.

    I’m glad the court awarded money over it in the ’47-’48 lawsuit, as foolish as pretty much everything else about that suit was. It was a derivative concept of Superman. Siegel was also there first with the core idea of a feature about Superman as a boy, despite how different the published strip turned out to be.

  23. Let me also clarify Siegel and Shuster’s financial problems after the suit was over.

    Siegel gave the vast majority of his assets to his first wife as part of a quick divorce settlement shortly after the ’40s Superman suit was resolved. He was in a big hurry to marry the homewrecker who ultimately became his widow, and he apparently couldn’t be bothered to negotiate a more equitable split.

    As for Shuster, he was a very irresponsible spendthrift. He seems to have been a very childlike man in many ways. Reading about him, I honestly wonder if he had some sort of developmental disability. He actually didn’t do much work on Superman after the first year or so. Wayne Boring and others would draw the stories, and Shuster would just do the Superman heads.

  24. Nate says:

    So, we have three, well argued posts claiming the following: 1) The families of S&S have a legal right to pursue a revenue sharing deal; 2) regardless of the character of S&S Warner/DC systematically worked to give them as little as possible; and 3) DC turned down Superboy when originally pitched by S&S, then used the idea anyway.
    How does RSM respond to the three claims. To the first claim he has no response. This is a bit surprising given that if Ford’s reading of the law is correct, then the families of S&S are doing exactly what RSM would have any entity do, whether corporate or individual. Namely, they are using the law to their financial advantage. As to the second claim, he supplies an ad hominem argument to suggest that that Warner gave a philandering man-boy what he had coming? Finally, to the third claim he responds with an admission that S&S deserved some money, but he wraps it in an apology for the actions of DC on the basis that the idea they saw fit to print wasn’t that good in the first place.
    For a guy so invested in elevating the discourse around creator rights he engages in some super-sloppy argument.

  25. I’ve discussed the legal situation in an article of my own. I know several people here have read it. As such, I didn’t see the need to go over it again. But for your sake, here’s the link:

    http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2012/11/the-superman-case-and-best-outcomes-for-writers-on-comics/

  26. Nate says:

    I read it. But this thread is not about your old article, and neither was my criticism of your line of reasoning in that article. My criticism is of your unthoughtful response to two rather thoughtful comments.

  27. As to the second claim, he supplies an ad hominem argument to suggest that that Warner gave a philandering man-boy what he had coming?

    If you read the comment with a reasonable degree of attention, you will see that I was talking about where S & S’s money went after their relationship with DC ended. That’s pretty much it.

    I’ll admit he characterization of Joanne Kovacs Siegel as a homewrecker was gratuitous. It’s accurate, though. I intended it as a splash of cold water in Patrick’s face. Based on things he’s written elsewhere, he sentimentalizes her even more than he does Jack Kirby. She was actually a really nasty piece of work. Her low point was probably chiseling Joe Shuster out of a substantial percentage of his Superman pension in the ’80s.

    Actually, pretty much the entire cast of characters in the S&S story is pretty repellent. They’re like something out of a Thackeray novel.

    As for DC “systematically working to give them as little as possible,” that’s demonstrably false. I agree that Liebowitz and Donenfeld were scumbags, but they regularly paid Siegel and Shuster substantial bonuses over and above page-rate obligations, and you also have that whole litany of changes to their original deal I listed above. In the ’80s and 90s, Paul Levitz bent over backwards with giving increases, bonuses, and other things that DC was by no means obligated to provide.

  28. Well, I have to pick and choose what to talk about. There are only so many hours in the day. I’ve already spent far more time commenting on this thread than I ever intended.

  29. patrick ford says:

    Seeing a superhero fan reading from the Warner playbook for the fiftieth is hardly a splash of cold water. It’s what I expect.

  30. patrick ford says:

    …fiftieth time…

    It’s probably more like a hundred.

  31. Brad Ricca says:

    Nice article, Michael, especially that last bit. For those interested in more details of the case — as well as those ’40s numbers, raise rates, and the details of the original Superboy pitch (which was attempted more than once), I invite you to read my new bio on Siegel & Shuster, now available from St. Martin’s Press. It took me ten years to write and has 70+ pages of endnotes to document it. I really hope people read it because it does clear up many of these misconceptions that all of us have had for so long (since the forties, really). If you are at Comic-Con, I will be part of a panel on the lawsuit with Jeff Trexler (a lawyer) and Heidi MacDonald. If you are here and interested in the case — do not miss — 10:30 am on Sunday.

  32. Brad Ricca says:

    And let’s blame Con fatigue or the poor marketing skills of an English major that I forgot the title (it’s Super Boys, just came out in June).

  33. Jeff Trexler says:

    Michael, do you really mean to suggest that my only value added has been posting documents? I actually stopped mass document dumps a few years ago, except for personal use on my public Scribd account. Others had started following my lead on that front, which enabled me to focus on fresh legal analysis, original reporting and my own corrections to errors in other accounts. As you may recall, I would have been doing that here if I hadn’t already promised to start posting documents at the Beat.

    In fact, I had some cool material on other topics I was going to contribute to the TCJ blog–I had to stop posting here due to time constraints but was looking forward to getting back on the virtual horse. However, if this is a sly jab at my work I have to confess I’m a tad disappointed.

    BTW, the check does not mention Action #1. While the other payments listed were for specific issues, the $130 payment was for “Superman.” This is legally significant, even if it does not undo your general conclusions.

  34. Michael Dean says:

    Jeff,

    No, that was not intended as a sly jab. What I have read of your analytical posts has seemed very astute to me. Your work definitely stands out as thorough and informed among the usual posts that make up the Internet comics-news echo chamber. Drop me a line (email = my last name at tcj.com) if you have ideas you’d like to discuss.

  35. Mark says:

    if anyone is still paying attention to this article I have a question……………….

  36. Mark says:

    anyone

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