Wednesday, June 25, 2008


While researching a matter I have in the Central District of California, I came across the March 26, 2008 decision in Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entertainment, wherein the heirs of Jarome Siegel -- co-creator, with Joseph Schuster, of Superman -- are trying to reclaim their copyright over the Supreman character. District Judge Stephen Larson's lovingly crafted 72 page decision denied summary judgment to Warner Brothers, and found that Siegel's heirs are intitled to some compensation from the copyright.

In addition to its discussion of copyright law, the decision contains a detailed history of the Superman franchise, with pictures, and appends a reproduction of the first Superman comic book.

As Judge Larson explains, Superman started as a newspaper comic strip, and was first published as a comic book in 1938 by Detective Comics under the name "Action Comics." On March 1, 1938, prior to publishing Action Comics Number 1, Detective Comics paid Siegel and Scheuster $130 for their work (representing the $10 per page rate they had agreed on) and asked them to sign a form stating that they were granting Detective Comics "all the goodwill attached... and exclusive right[s] [to the Superman Character] to have and hold forever."

Needless to say, the Superman franchise became quite valuable. In 1947, Siegel and Schuster brought an action in the New York State Supreme Court, Westchester County, seeking to rescind the copyright grant. The parties settled for $94,000, and Siegal and Schuster acknowledged that Detective Comics was the exclusive owner of the Superman copyright.

By the mid-1960's, however, the Supreman copyright was up for renewal, and Siegel and Schuster sued again. They argued that, as the creators of the work, they owned the renewal rights. Siegel and Schuster lost the suit but, in light of the bad publicity, Warner Communications (which then owned the copyright), agreed to give them creator credit, pay them an annual stipend and provide them with health insurance for the rest of their lives (with the stipend and insurance to go to their spouses if they died before a certain date.  In the 1980's, the insurance agreement was renegotiated to apply if the Superman creators predeceased their spouses, without respect to any particular timeframe).

In 1976 the Copyright act was amended to include a provision that any grant of copyright awarded before a certain could be terminated. Siegel's heirs (and Schuster's, seperately) terminiated the copyright grant and, after a series of unsuccessful negotiations, sued.

In the March 26, 2008 decision, the Court denied summary judgment. Warner Brothers argued, among other things, that by accepting the stipend and health insurance after sending a termination letter Mrs. Siegel had waived her termination rights, but the court did not buy that argument. Instead, the Court found that the the termination was valid. The court did find in Warner Brother's favor on the issue of foreign profits, holding that termination of a U.S. copyright does not automatically effect intellectual property rights in other countries.

The court set the case down for further proceedings related to two issues: first, what extent the Superman franchise is based on the original comic book, as opposed to later developments; and, second, whether Siegel is entitled only to a share of the licensing payments that WB Entertainment (a WB subsidiary) paid Warner Brothers, or whether -- due to a sweetheart deal on the licensing payments -- Siegel is entitled to a share of WB Entertainment's actual profits.

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