Supermoney: The Superman Trial and Jerry Siegel’s Estate
For those who came in late… As has been widely reported, the Federal District Court ruled somewhat in favor of the estate of Jerry Siegel in its lawsuit to have all publishing rights to the Superman story in Action Comics #1 be taken from Time Warner’s DC Comics subsidiary and given to Jerry’s heirs. The decision runs 72 pages, but at heart is the judge’s ruling that because the property existed before Action#1, “work for hire” stipulations do not apply.
The New York Times did a good job covering the story; Mark Evanier, as would be expected, did a better job. For one thing, Mark got co-creator Joe Shuster’s first name right. The New York Times did not.
Whereas there is much cause for celebration, before we start dancing in the streets we should look at what’s at stake here.
Only the original concepts – only Superman, Clark Kent, the costume as portrayed in that initial story, and the abilities unique to Superman in that story – are in play. Perry White, the Daily Planet, Lex Luthor, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Bizarro, kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen and the rest are not on the table. Only the domestic rights are in play, and even then the estate would be in something of a co-ownership position with DC Comics. So don’t look forward to that Eros Comics Superman series quite yet.
Sadly for the Siegel family, this does not bring to an end a fight started by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster 60 years ago. Actually, it’s just warming up.
Time Warner and the rest of the entertainment industry cannot afford to lose this case. Unless they reach a settlement with the now-empowered Siegel estate, Time Warner has a hell of a lot at stake here – well beyond the next $200 million grossing Superman movie, a ton of licensing revenue and a pile of comic books. The crack of the whip here affects everything TW does: movies, music, magazines, books, Internet content. It affects AOL, it affects The CW, it affects TCM, it affects HBO, it affects CNN.
Exploiting intellectual property is all they do; they cannot afford to lose. This ruling can alter creator relationships drastically, and not necessarily in a good way. In order to avoid future Siegel situations, the entertainment industry may put more front money on the table, but only with a complete buy-out contract. In order to make the deal, creators may have to sign away everything, including the right to litigate. Of course, you can sue over that and anything else your heart desires… but winning is another matter. We don’t need the entertainment companies the way we used to, as technology makes do-it-yourself more possible today than ever before. But it’s kind of tough to raise the money for a quarter billion dollar movie without a solid theatrical / home video / cable / international distribution deal.
So it is possible that after the dust settles on the Siegel suit, creators in all aspects of the entertainment industry might actually be worse off than before. Sadly, there are far more entertainment lawyers and asshole bureaucrats than there are creative creators.
Oh… you might well be wondering “what about Joe Shuster?”
The court said the relationship would be between DC Comics and the Siegel estate “owing to the fact that Shuster left no heirs who could simultaneously seek to terminate his half of the grant in the material.”
I understand this perfectly well. But it sucks. What came down last week was too late for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.