By Steve Younis
The iconic black and white form of Mickey Mouse whistling his cheery tune as he steers a rickety steamboat has become a symbol not just of Disney, but of a cultural landmark: the entry of works from 1928 into the public domain. As the ear-hatted rodent gleefully steps into the realm of free-for-all creativity, a question inevitably echoes across the comic book universe: when will Superman, another titan of popular culture, follow suit?
For over eight decades, Superman has been a beacon of hope and justice, inspiring generations with his unwavering moral compass and superhuman feats. But what happens to the Man of Steel when copyright expires? When will Superman finally take flight into the vast expanse of the public domain?
Buckle up, because we’re about to break the sound barrier of copyright law and explore the future of our favorite Kryptonian.
Countdown to Public Domain:
Under current US copyright law, works published before 1978 enter the public domain 95 years after their first appearance. Superman, gracing the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938, faces a 2034 deadline before he can truly spread his wings and fly free.
Not Your Father’s Superman:
Hold your horses, though. While the original, red-clad Superman of 1938 will be fair game, subsequent developments and iterations remain under copyright protection… for now. Many later elements, like Lex Luthor, Kryptonite, and the Daily Planet will gradually enter the public domain over the coming years. So, don’t expect to see your favorite Byrne-era Superman or Zack Snyder’s cinematic Man of Steel suddenly become public property. It’s a gradual process, but one that opens doors for creators to explore different eras of the Man of Steel’s legacy.
Even in 2034, DC Comics will likely retain trademarks on iconic elements like the Superman logo, the S-shield, and specific character names. While you might be able to write your own Superman story using the original concept, remember that trademark concerns extend beyond just the logo and character names. Merchandise, adaptations in various media, and even specific catchphrases could still be protected under trademark law. So, while your fan fiction might be free to fly, using certain iconic elements could still land you in legal trouble.
Let’s look at the DC Comics vs. Kryptonite Corp. legal case as an example. This case – and the Daily Planet case mentioned in it – illustrates what could happen when people start using public domain Superman elements. The ruling notes that Kryptonite Locks have Kryptonite as a mark under an agreement with DC that the company (Schlage) will use in ways not associated with Superman marks. The case arose in part when the lock company started using “super” in its marketing. Implicit in this: DC sees the use of Kryptonite as a source identifier to be problematic when used in ways associated with DC’s Superman marks.
Creative Kryptonite? Or a Golden Age of Storytelling?
The public domain can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it could unleash a wave of unauthorized Superman stories, some potentially cringe-worthy pastiches, others daring reimaginings. On the other hand, it could open doors for independent creators, fan fiction enthusiasts, and aspiring comic book artists to contribute to the Superman mythos.
DC Comics’ Next Chapter:
DC Comics, ever the strategic innovators, have several options to navigate this new landscape. One intriguing possibility is to publish original copyrighted stories featuring characters and elements that are approaching the public domain. The multiverse concept provides a perfect sandbox for such endeavors, allowing them to explore alternate versions of Superman while simultaneously reinforcing the distinction between authorized stories and independent creations. This strategy could not only protect their intellectual property but also offer fans a fresh perspective on their beloved hero.
The Future Remains Up, Up and Away:
The exact trajectory of Superman’s future in the public domain remains unclear, shrouded in a mist of legal complexities and creative possibilities. But one thing’s for sure, the Man of Steel’s impact on pop culture is undeniable, and his legend will continue to soar, even after he sheds the shackles of copyright. So, keep your capes and tights at the ready, because in 2034, Superman might just enter a whole new era of adventures.
[A huge thanks to Jeff Trexler for lending his legal expertise and knowledge towards this article]