Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Who owns Superman? - Part I

            I’m going try and discuss a delicate topic in the comic book community. Namely, I want to talk about the ownership of Superman. Over the years, my thoughts on this topic have shifted back and forth, between being outraged at Siegel and Shuster’s lack of compensation for their creation to thinking DC really didn’t do much wrong. To this day, I’m still not sure exactly where I stand. About a decade ago, I thought it was appalling how DC treated Superman’s creators and the sad financial state they were reduced to in their later years. I was even inspired to write an article calling for changes to copyright law to prevent an injustice like this from happening again. Fortunately, the paper was never published. It was written well, but I later realized I had a fundamental, factual error in it that would’ve been a major embarrassment. (This topic on changing copyright law might be revisited at a later date.) These days, I think I fall somewhere in-between feeling pity for Siegel and Shuster and anger at DC. Both sides have reasons why they are in the right and why they are in the wrong, and at this point, there is not really an outcome fair to either side. But, let’s start at the beginning before we come to our final analysis.
            Most people who’ve been around comics long enough know the story. Jerry Siegel came up with the basic idea of the Superman story in 1933, and he and Joseph Shuster created several weeks’ worth of material for a possible comic strip.[1] They shopped the story for a number of years without finding a publisher.[2] Eventually, they started working on some comic strips for Detective Comics, and, in 1938 it decided to finally publish Siegel and Shuster’s Superman story in its new book, Action Comics.[3] The two had already signed employment agreements stating DC owned all rights to the creations they made during their term of employment. On March 1, 1938, DC also had them execute an agreement giving all rights in the Superman strips to DC.[4] For the assignment of their rights to Superman, Siegel and Shuster received $130 as compensation from DC.[5]
            In September 1938, they again executed another employment agreement with DC.[6] The agreement was to run for five years, and they were to be paid $10 per page for their work on Superman, in addition to being paid for their work on other comic strips at a lower rate.[7] It also reiterated that DC was the owner of all rights in the Superman strips, and it gave DC a right of first refusal to future creations from Siegel and Shuster.[8] By 1947, Siegel and Shuster’s total compensation for the Superman strip was greater than $400,000.[9]        
            In the next post, I’ll discuss the first lawsuit over the rights to Superman.

[1] Siegel v. Time Warner, Inc., 496 F.Supp.2d 1111, 1113 (C.D. Cal. 2007).
[2] Id.
[3] Id. at 1114.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Siegel v. National Periodical Publications, Inc., 508 F.2d 909, 911 (2nd Cir. 1974).

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