In a comment on the Russell Keaton post, Denis Kitchen — whose contributions to the comics community are many and invaluable — expressed his dismay over the publication of copyrighted material with what he considered to be an inaccurate account of their discovery. In this post, I’d like to provide a more in-depth explanation of the documents’ backstory and the legality of republishing them.
Copyright: These documents are part of the official public court record for the Siegels’ Superman case. In fact, the lawyer who made them part of the public record was the Siegels’ lawyer, Marc Toberoff, who certified their authenticity and filed them with the court. U.S. law has long recognized that the First Amendment protects the reproduction of material placed on the public record in connection with a federal court proceeding.
In regard to co-ownership of the material by the Siegel and Keaton estates, Kitchen notes that the Siegels’ lawyer vetoed the publication of a book collecting the material. However, even if the documents had not been made part of the court record, the Keaton estate arguably has a legal basis for going forward with the collection. As the recent Superman court decision reiterates, joint owners of copyrighted material each have the right to exploit it independent of each other, though they are required to share the profits with the other co-owners.
Backstory: My account of the documents’ rediscovery is a brief summary of far more detailed information provided by Siegel’s daughter, Laura Siegel Larson.
In her sworn deposition, Siegel Larson describes hearing her father’s account of the Keaton history and seeing the Keaton artwork back when she was a teenager. Her father described the documents as photostats, which have long since been superseded by contemporary copying machines. This material was, after her father’s passing, found decades later in the course of preparing for the exercise of termination rights. After getting misplaced in a move, it was rediscovered in April 2007.
The original artwork is doubtless spectacular, well deserving reproduction with contemporary technology.
Evidence: If anyone is interested in reading the original sources, the complete sworn Toberoff declaration and exhibits are available here. There is a lot of fascinating material in these exhibits, including the original 1937 and 1938 agreements, business records from Siegel’s American Artists League, historic litigation documents, Siegel’s memoirs and more scripts, including the complete original K-metal story.
The most poignant document, though, is a 1976 letter from Jerry Siegel to his daughter, in which Superman’s creator — one of the most imaginative and influential minds of the past century — apologizes for his legacy:
Most creators of successful literary properties leave valuable estates to their heirs. I am very sorry that because of my inexperience that this is not true in your case. I am glad, though, that this original material in which Superman was first created has survived through the years, and I am giving this to you, my beloved daughter Laura, in the hope that someday you will be able to market this for its full value and get some material benefit from being the daughter of the originator of Superman.
Feeling his world crash around him, Jerry Siegel sent these documents into the future so his child could live a better life.
And as the Siegels’ most recent court victory shows us, the original Man of Tomorrow was prophetic once again.