2005 Comic Book News Archives

March 3, 2005: Battle for Superman Ownership Explained

Newsarama have published a very interesting and well-researched article looking at the state of affairs in regards to the Superman Copyright battle and gives some explanations in laymen's terms to help fans understand what's going on. Here's a few excerpts from their article...

    Newsarama has obtained copies of both complaints filed by the Siegels, as well as the responses and counterclaims filed by Warner Brothers.

    The Superman complaint filed by Toberoff (the Siegel's lawyer) alleges that the defendants have refused to honor the termination notice, which became effective on April 16, 1999.

    Recapping the legality of the Siegels' action, under the Amendment made to the Copyright Act in 1976, original creators, or their heirs, have a five year window, during which, they can file a notice of termination of the transfer of copyright, that is, they can effectively end the transfer of the copyright that they originally made with a publisher or other corporation which would have been able to exploit the property in a way unavailable to the creator. The window for filing the termination notice opened after the 56th year of copyright, for Superman, this was 1994 - 1999. The Siegels filed their paperwork in 1997, and after an automatic two year wait, the termination became effective in 1999.

    Under current Copyright law the copyright to Superman lasted for 28 years from its creation, that is, 28 years from its (alleged) date of registration on April 18, 1938. Siegel and Superman co-creator Joe Shuster had transferred the copyright to National Periodical Publications (later, DC Comics) in 1938. Siegel and later Shuster had fully created the character and world of Superman prior to the transfer, therefore "Superman" was not a "work made for hire."

    The copyright for Superman was renewed for another 28 years by DC Comics in 1966. After that, the property would enter the public domain. While the 1976 amendment to the Copyright Act greatly extended the lives of copyrights (they now stand at life of the author plus 70 years), it added a final period of copyright extension of 19 years to properties created before 1978. Therefore, Superman's copyright was up for renewal in: 1966 + 19 = 1994. Which is when Congress mandated that there should be a five year window open for creators to terminate the transfer of the copyright, and regain control of their property.

    In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Amendment, or Copyright Extension Term of 1998, which added another 20 years to pre-1978 copyrights. The 1998 Amendment also allowed executors, rather than only direct descendants and/or widow(ers) to file paperwork to terminate the transfer of copyright. This last addition allowed for, as reported, Joe Shuster's nephew, Mark Peary, to file notice for his uncle's share of Superman. Peary filed his paperwork in November of 2003, and by law, the termination will go into effect in 2013 (the next point at which the copyright would be up for renewal, that is, 1994 + 19 = 2013). That is, in 2013, if upheld by the Court, neither Warner Brothers nor any of its companies will own the copyright to Superman.

Read the complete article at the Newsarama website, which includes summaries of the Superman complaint, the response, and Warner Brothers/DC/Time Warner's Counterclaim.

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