Monday, November 14, 2016

Who Owns Superman? - Part III

            This is the third in my series of posts on the fight over the rights to Superman. You can find posts one and two here and here.

            In the late 1960s and mid-1970s, Siegel and Shuster and Detective Comics again went to court over the ownership rights of Superman. At issue between the parties were the copyright renewal rights to Superman. Before I dive in to the cases, I need to provide a brief overview of relevant copyright law at the time.
            At the time of Superman’s creation and at the time of the litigation, U.S. copyright law was governed by the Copyright Act of 1909. Unlike today where the full term of copyright protection is granted upon completion of a work, the original term of copyright protection was for 28 years from the date of publication.[1] The term of protection could be extended for an additional 28 years if a notice of renewal was filed with the copyright office.[2] The applicability of the work for hire doctrine also was different than today (see here for my previous discussion of the work made for hire doctrine). Even though the work for hire doctrine was mentioned in the Copyright Act, there was no guidance provided.[3] Instead, courts applied various tests to determine whether an employee-employer relationship existed thereby making something a work made for hire.
            After agreeing to settle the previous case over Superman and granting the rights to DC, Siegel and Shuster used the expiration of Superman’s initial copyright term and upcoming copyright renewal term in another attempt to regain control of the character they created. They filed their case in federal court in New York in 1969 seeking a declaration that they did not transfer the copyright renewal rights to DC.[4]
            DC argued Siegel and Shuster had assigned the renewal rights to DC in the various agreements they had signed over the years and while settling the previous lawsuit.[5] DC also argued Superman was a work for hire and ownership of the character belonged to DC.[6]
            The court ruled Siegel and Shuster were prevented from arguing many of their claims because of the previous settlement agreement.[7] It also ruled the language of the settlement agreement seemed to clearly state that Siegel and Shuster had transferred all ownership rights to DC, including the renewal rights.[8] Furthermore, the court ruled Superman was a work for hire because DC had instructed Siegel and Shuster on the revision and expansion of the Superman story published in Action Comics #1.[9]   
             On appeal, the Second Circuit court of appeals found the lower court had properly ruled that Siegel and Shuster were barred from relitigating the ownership of Superman due to the state court judgment in the 1948 case, and it found the lower court was correct in finding that the judgment and other agreements between the parties had transferred the copyright renewal rights to DC.[10] However, the Second Circuit did overturn the lower courts finding that Superman was a work for hire.[11]
At the time, it appeared the fight over Superman was over. Siegel and Shuster could not regain Superman through his renewal rights. However, a change in copyright law in 1976 will give them, and their heirs, another opportunity to try and take back Superman, which we’ll begin discussing next time.

[1] See Copyright Act of 1909, § 23, (last visisted Nov. 11, 2016).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Siegel v. Time Warner, Inc., 496 F.Supp.2d 1111, 1119 (C.D. Cal. 2007).
[5] Siegel v. National Periodical Publications, Inc., 364 F.Supp. 1032, 1035 (S.D.N.Y. 1973).
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at 1036.
[8] Id. at 1037
[9] Id. at 1036.
[10] Siegel v. National Periodical Publicatoins, Inc., 508 F.2d 909, 912-14 (2nd Cir. 1974).
[11] Id. at 914.