In what may shape up to be a historic ruling, a judge on Wednesday awarded Jerry Siegel’s heirs the copyright to the Superman material in Action Comics #1.
As Jeff Trexler points out, Judge Stephen Larson’s 71 1/2-page opinion doesn’t resolve all the issues — the separate Superboy case, division of profits, etc. — but it does seem to put an end, of sorts, to a decades-long feud. (The decision is certain to be appealed by Time Warner.)
“After seventy years,” Larson writes in his concluding paragraph, “Jerome Siegel’s heirs regain what he granted so long ago — the copyright in the Superman material that was published in Action Comics Vol. 1. What remains is an apportionment of profits, guided in some measure by the rulings contained in this Order, and a trial on whether to include the profits generated by DC Comics’ corporate sibling’s exploitation of the Superman copyright.”
Trexler also points to an analysis of the decision by William Patry, Google’s senior copyright counsel, which provides some context: “The opinion doesn’t cover Schuster’s interests, which are not subject to Section 304(c) termination, but rather a future 304(d) termination. Nor does the opinion reach the work for hire question for anything after the (justly famous and important) Action Comics Vol. 1 published on April 18, 1938 – the collateral estoppel applied on work for hire only covers Action Comics Vol. 1. Finally, there are very thorny issues of apportionment. All of these issues are likely to be the subject of subsequent motions and possibly trial.”
Expect more coverage over the weekend.
Update: The New York Times weighs in with reaction quotes from Siegel estate attorney Marc Toberoff, Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson. The Times notes that while the decision leaves intact Time Warner’s international rights to Superman, it may open the door to a similar reversion of copyright to the estate of Joe Shuster in 2013.
“After 2013, Time Warner couldn’t exploit any new Superman-derived works without a licence from the Siegels and Shusters,” said Toberoff, who also represents the Shuster estate.
Update 2 (March 29): Jeff Trexler is a step ahead of everyone else, and provides a wonderfully informative copyright decision FAQ. Those commenters in a panic over what the ruling will mean to their monthly dose of Superman comics would do well to read the article, as Trexler addresses questions of creative control, trademarks, and copyright law.
Update 3 (March 29): Blog@ contributor and attorney Tom Bondurant analyzes the ruling for the main site.
Neil Gaiman also comments: “When I did something like this on a much smaller scale, I remember how much of a relief it was when the court awarded me my share in the characters I’d co-created. (I really ought to do something with it. Anyone want to publish an ANGELA comic? Or Medieval Spawn?)”
Update 5: Jeff Trexler continues his commentary on the ruling: “So is this the death of Superman? No, not at all. Instead of worrying about DC folding up, expect a settlement with both the Siegel and Shuster families, albeit perhaps one that is more favorable to them in terms of finances and the creators’ recognition than might have otherwise been obtained.”