Pow!! Heirs of Superman Creator Pull off Rare Copyright Termination

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Pow!! Heirs of Superman Creator Pull off Rare Copyright Termination

Mon Mar 31, 2008 @ 12:08PM PST

Posted by Matthew Heller

Supermancomic Lawyers for the heirs of one of the creators of Superman appear to have pulled off an almost superhuman feat: successfully terminating the original 1938 grant of copyright by Jerome Siegel and his partner Joseph Shuster in their creation of the comic book superhero.

A Los Angeles judge ruled last week that Siegel's widow and daughter had filed a valid notice to terminate under the 1976 Copyright Act. For works created before 1978 (when the act came into effect), assignments of copyright may be terminated by authors or their heirs 56 years after the date the copyright was first secured, or 35 years from the date of the implementation of the act (January 1, 2013), provided that a number of formalities are met. Those formalities are daunting, however, as U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson noted in this 72-page ruling granting summary judgment to the heirs.

"The termination provisions contained in the Copyright Act of 1976 have aptly been characterized as formalistic and complex, such that authors, or their heirs, successfully terminating the grant to the copyright in their original work of authorship is a feat accomplished 'against all odds,'" he said, quoting copyright guru Prof. William Patry.

For the Siegel heirs to prevail would be "no small feat," Larson said, before concluding that, indeed, they had "travers[ed] the many impediments" to achieving their goal. "After seventy years, 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," he ruled, referring to the first Superman comic book published by Detective Comics in 1938.

The ruling gives the Siegels a share of the domestic rights to the character with DC Comics and Time Warner, which retain full control over the international rights. Siegel had complained until his death in 1996 that he and Shuster got a raw deal from Detective Comics.

"It is a historic ruling, in itself a vindication of the family's and fellow creators' decades-long struggle to receive legal recognition of Siegel and Shuster's role in creating the character," the Uncivilsociety blog commented. The Siegels' lawyer, Marc Toberoff, has made something of a cottage industry out of these cases, and he's rightly getting a fair bit of press for this ruling. 

But several important issues remain unresolved, including the apportionment of Superman profits and whether the heirs are entitled to a share of the profits generated by DC Comics' licensing of movie and TV rights to Time Warner. DC Comics, the successor of Detective Comics, was acquired by Warner Bros. Entertainment in 1969. How this all will affect future "Superman" movies is still an open question.

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