Superman — not faster than a not-so-speeding reversion of copyright ownership

On Notice

The ownership issues involving Superman have always been contentious but not factually disputed — two teenagers created Superman and then sold their rights for a miniscule amount. Litigation ensued in bursts for decades, with the original creators dying and their heirs taking up their cause, and the owner/licensor of Superman, Warner Bros/ Time Warner, making millions of dollars from the character. But a recent ruling allowing for the heirs to retroactively retain copyright back to 1999 has riled up many fans. (For analysis of this case check out these links and the opinion.)

While the idea of the individual creator is a frequent meme within comics culture; after all, Stan Lee (co-creator of Spiderman, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four among others) has his own action figure, the idea of returning copyright ownership to the original creators has upset fans. While fans are not monolithic, overall the negative reactions can be summarized as: 1. The original contract is binding; 2. the time to resolve this issue is long past; and 3. the heirs are greedy.

Unfortunately for fans, the return of the copyright is not an example of “activist judges”, but a termination exception (17 USC 304(c)) built into to copyright law similar to the Jubilee (no, not the glittery X-girl) Biblical return of land to its original owner after fifty years. And Time Warner/ Warner Brothers has been “on notice” about this possibility and its potential economic impact all along — I’m quite sure they have tons of highly competent attorneys.

And by having this lawsuit moving much slower than an an avenging alien at the speed of a train or a bullet has allowed Time Warner to exploit their Superman intellectual property during the almost twenty years of litigation in this case, including the backstory of Superman in the Smallville television show, the ongoing story of Superman in Superman Returns movie sequel/remake of Superman III, and the teamwork of Superman in the various Justice League cartoons, just for starters.

Overall, though not directly stated by fans, it seems like the largest concern is the issue of continuity — fans want the story of Superman to continue to be told. And they are concerned that the problem of ownership will prevent more officially sanctioned products. I doubt that will happen here because the property is too valuable for all concerned to lock that down.

Of course, this would be a non-issue if the U.S. had a more reasonable copyright term of perhaps 50 years (like the biblical Jubilee period). Then instead of worrying about who owns the man of Steel, we would all be beneficiaries of having the man of Steel as part of the public domain.

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