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Warner Bros' Kryptonite: Superman Creator's Heirs

by
March 31, 2008
Source: NY Times

Action Comics Superman

Can you imagine being the creator of the iconic Superman character and then selling the rights to that creation for $130? Of course, you know what they say about hindsight being 20-20. But back in 1932 when Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster as teenagers authored the superhero we know today, a deal like that seemed decent enough. Thankfully, a court ruling last week against Time Warner (via NY Times) might finally rid the Siegel heirs of this truly bitter taste. One wonders, then, what will become of future Superman projects, including the sequel to the 2006 Superman Returns and the already troubled Justice League of America movie.

Essentially, the judge determined that the Siegel heirs' rights to the Superman character were restored as of 1999, stemming from a lawsuit brought by Mrs. Siegel and her daughter in 1997. That suit relied on a 1976 law, which allows heirs to recover rights to creations under certain circumstances. Considering this, it seems Warner Bros (the film unit of Time Warner) owes the Siegels quite a pretty penny, since Superman Returns brought in just over $200 million domestically in 2006. (This latest ruling only pertains to the US copyright to the character.)

So what does this mean for the upcoming projects? No one really knows just yet. It seems to simply boil down to Warner Bros forking over some money; but is that enough to really derail any upcoming productions? If I'm right, Alex is probably giggling that Justice League is hit with yet another setback. To give you an idea, attorney Marc Toberoff, who also repped this case, got producer Robert B. Clarke $17.5 million from Warner Bros stemming from similarities between Clarke's 1975 Moonrunners and the big-screen Dukes of Hazzard.

Toberoff was a good choice by the Siegels, for sure. The guy has filed similar copyright suits involving various productions, such as Wild Wild West, "Smallville", and the forthcoming Get Smart.

Yet however noble this latest ruling for the Siegel heirs may be, Toberoff's own personal ambitions smack of some greediness. The guy has apparently set up a production company stemming from all this litigation called Intellectual Properties Worldwide. Toberoff even sometimes gets a producing credit on the resulting films.

Complicating the Superman outlook further is the fact that Shuster's heirs are eligible to bring a similar suit in 2013. Whether that suit would be retroactive as it is for the Siegels is unknown. But you can be sure Warner Bros is stepping lightly now and taking a hard look at the viability of future projects.

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  • Heckle
    This is rather stupid. Does this mean if i sell an idea i have now that down the road when it makes money i can get money from those i sold it to? Thats ridiculous. He sold it and it is no longer his.
  • john
    money hungry bastards
  • Ruby
    I agree Heckle This is nothing, but greed. How can heirs inherit something that has already had rights sold. It's not even the creators. Just some people who happen to be related, so by right think they are owed something. I had a distant relative who played with Babe Ruth and was in the Pride of the Yankees. So by definition, I should be due some cut of proceeds ever made on that movie and tickets to games. Just ridiculous...
  • it's interesting that folks are more against Siegel's heirs than Time Warner. this news immediately pleased me. am I alone on this? granted, it wasn't their creation, but you do have to admit the unbalanced equation: Siegel and Shuster get $130 for actually creating THE character of Superman, while studios reap millions upon millions. (the two did actually get an annuity of $20k for a number of years, but that's equally negligible, really) admittedly, I'm REALLY against a lot of the nonsense that surrounds IP and copyright, and how big companies exploit that. I mean, Detective Comics' stipulated to the naive pair back in the '30s that the rights to Superman were theirs "to have and hold forever." that's a bit extreme, and seemingly not allowed under copyright law. Comic Book Resources has an impressive set of FAQs: (here's a key one, if you're interested) *Why can they terminate the copyright? When Siegel and Shuster sold Superman to DC Comics, the status of copyrighted material in the United States was that they last for 28 years, with the right to renew for an additional 28 years - making it a total of 56 years. In 1976, Congress extended the renewal period from 28 years to 47 years (an increase of 19 years), making it a total of 75 years. At the time, Congress decided that people who transferred a copyright before 1978 (when the extension kicked in) deserved a chance to terminate the transfer to gain the benefit of the extra 19 years. Their theory was that when people sold their copyright, they did so under the idea it would be for 56 years, and since it was now for 75 years, the creator of the original work, or their heirs, should get back the copyright for the extra time, presumably to get financially compensated again, if the copyright still had value. whatever the various reasoning, I'm pretty pleased at the news.
  • Im with Ken on this one. If you sell a stupid idea for a grand and then it makes a billion dollar franchise, sure as hell I would fight for some more money back!
  • Craig
    Maybe i'm just being naive, but they sold the rights and were financially rewarded in return for selling them at the time and for a period thereafter...... If they were too stupid or commercially naive themselves to negotiate a fair deal when they sold the rights, then why should some distant relative be eligible for for what amounts to a lottery win??? I'm sorry but I can't think of any other form of business were you can benefit 56 or 75 years after making a stupid decision.
  • Heckle
    Well i wasnt aware of the copyright law. That sort of changes things but not totally. If i sell you something then it belongs to you. Not me. I mean if i sell you a used car and then you go win a race with it.....do i deserve part of the winnings? NO.
  • go Siegel
    Good. Maybe this will kill the sequel to Super Deadbeat Dad and the JLA movies.
  • Gus
    Folks crying greed have absolutely no understanding of the wholesale theft and abuse that comic book companies have continually perpetrated on creators.
  • Steffen
    Hey Gus! Show me your doctorate thesis research paper on the topic of the "wholesale theft and abuse in the comic book industry" you claim so much knowledge of and I'll believe your otherwise wildly baseless claim. As far as I'm concerned, if Siegel and Schuster sold the copyright, their heirs have absolutely no right to it, ever. If Siegel and Schuster did not choose to terminate the transfer in 1976, then their heirs _still_ have absolutely no right to it. Anyone who makes any sort of claim that they deserve a part of the profits from the continued success of their parents' ideas deserves nothing. If you're not running your parents' business, you get no part of it unless your parents' made the silly mistake of writing into their will that you get a stipend from the company until your death, or the company goes out of business.
  • Steffen. Wow. Jack Kirby co-created the Marvel Universe as we know it, including X-Men, The Hulk and a slew of other ka-billion dollars properties, and he was only paid a flat page rate with no royalties. Many MANY other examples of this in comics, including the creator of Howard The Duck and Blade, situations where creators either signed a horrible contract or were outright duped, only to see their characters raking in millions in film years later. Jack Kirby apparently couldn't set foot in a toy store because he would get physically ill seeing aisles full of toys based on his creations--none of which he would see a dime profit from. Bill Finger was the co-creator of Batman and died penniless without co-creator credit until years later. The comics industry has a proven track record of abuse toward creators, although it has improved in the last 15 years or so.

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