The Siegel Ruling: My Thoughts

Well it’s been a week since the news hit the Internet that the Siegels won a key battle in their litigation with Time Warner and for the moment they own fifty percent of the copyright to Superman. Reactions have been mixed and have ranged from entertaining to downright frustrating. I’ve been thinking about the whole thing for the better part of the week and here are my thoughts and feelings on the subject.

For those wanting the particulars you can get more information HERE and HERE.

The problem I’ve had writing this thing is that I didn’t know how to break down my thoughts in a way that anyone besides me would want to read. To keep things kind of simple I broke it down to the major questions surrounding the issue. It’s complicated or at least the way I feel is complicated so I thought that would be the best way to deal with it.

And here we go…

1. Do I think the Siegels deserved to be on the winning side of this ruling?

Well, yes and no. Frankly they are well within their rights to have sued for the rights thanks to the late Sonny Bono (who, by the way, played Mayor Frank Berkowitz in a first season episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) when he kicked started legislation that amended and changed the way heirs and estates could seek to recapture copyrights. So when it comes to the letter of the law they are entitled to do what they have done and since it is one of those laws that involve creative and intellectual properties I really can’t get all that upset about it since the law doesn’t impede on anyone’s civil rights and doesn’t, for example, tell a person they can’t drink out of that water fountain because they aren’t the right color.

That doesn’t mean that I agree with it. If Jerry Siegel was still alive and wanted to get the copyright back because the laws changed to allow him to do so then I would more than likely be behind him all the way. But this isn’t Jerry Siegel wanting to get the copyright back. It’s his widow and daughter. There is something to be said of Joanne and Laura having to live with Jerry’s struggle, especially Laura who had to deal with what her father went through her entire life. On the other hand there seems to be some evidence that some of what Jerry Siegel went through was kind of his own fault. I am not trying to say that he wasn’t screwed over. I’m simply saying that the apocryphal tale that Siegel and Shuster were the Davy and that DC Comics, in its many forms, was the evil Goliath set to keep all of the money for themselves and give nothing to Superman’s creators doesn’t ring true and is a tad naïve.

So it had to be rough for Joanne and Laura but that doesn’t mean I think they should have control of the copyright, but more on that in a bit.

2. Do I think that if you are against the Siegels in one form or another that you are against creator’s rights?

No, and what a stupid thing to say.

What is happening with the Siegels and creator’s rights are pretty different. Again, we’re not talking about someone claiming their intellectual property. We’re talking about an estate wanting money because of what their late husband and father created over seventy years ago. Do they deserve the money? Maybe. I mean DC and Warner Brothers were paying Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster a pension of sorts and if that pension extended to their heirs than by all means they deserve the money if the same deal that would have allowed Jerry Siegel to get the copyright back extends to them. But saying you don’t think that the estate deserves the money isn’t saying that a creator doesn’t deserve to be compensated if their creation becomes financially successful. There is a world of difference between saying that a person who creates a financially successful property deserves to be compensated and saying that the family of the dead creator deserves to be compensated for something they didn’t create.

A little harsh? Yes. If I created something that made a billion dollars in licensing would I want my wife and eventual children to still get a piece of that after I shuffled off this mortal coil? Yes, but I would make sure that such a thing was included in any kind of will that I would have written. Do I think Jerry Siegel would have wanted his family to be taken care of? More than likely, but the laws were different when he was alive and the Siegels are taking advantage of an amendment made after his death, which, like I said, is their right to do so even if I don’t agree with it.

3. So why don’t I agree with it?

This breaks down into two parts really.

Part one has to do with the fact that the Superman in Action Comics #1 is not the Superman currently running around in the comics and animated series and movies and so on. The only similarities is that Superman is Clark Kent, he was rocketed from a dying world as a baby, found by a kindly old couple and went on to work for a major metropolitan newspaper where he meets some woman named Lois Lane. Those are integral to the mythos, so to speak, but the supporting cast; Perry White, Jonathan and Martha Kent (originally it was John and Mary), Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo and so on were all created later, sometimes decades later and sometimes, in the case of Jimmy Olsen, in another medium altogether. There is a difference between being the defender of truth, justice and the American Way and being the champion of the weak and oppressed, though Superman did spout that particular line at least once during the Silver Age. Since the late forties Superman would never level a slum to force the government to build new, better housing or declare war on all unsafe drivers. I’m not suggesting that one is better than the other, it’s just the Superman we all think of when we think of Superman is in just about every important way totally different from the one that was originally presented in Action Comics #1. The spirit is still there, but the trappings aren’t.

Is that important?

Yes, and that leads into the second part which is the only reason the Siegels are able to get a sizable chunk of money for all domestic Superman related products and such since 1999 is that DC Comics (through the various publishers, editors, writers, artists and such) were in control of the character.

My opinions on this matter stems from an interview I read with Will Eisner in a book titled Comic Book Rebels. Here’s the passage:

CBR: Do you agree this has been the greatest injustice against creators-that it’s always been assumed in this particular industry that it’s the publisher who should own all rights to a character or comic book title?

Eisner: Injustice or rip-off is not a fair description. There are two sides to it. A publisher-just as the artist-works within the framework of what the market will bear. The publisher essentially felt he needed to have ownership because what he was doing was investing his money on a property, and he was not about to waive proprietorship. The publisher saw is in the long term and was prepared to promote, develop and sustain the property. The creating artist neither had the resources or staying power. As a matter of fact-and this is a fact-there isn’t a major superhero that has survived through today that is still being done by its originator.

Superman and Batman, for example, are the result of years of exploitation and creative refinement by many, many brilliant artists and writers. Thousand and thousands of dollars in investing in promotion and exploiting of ancillary product. Which the publisher claims he might not have done if he didn’t own the property-or if his lease on that property was at the whim of some artist. On the other hand, the artist could not do it all himself. The real unfairness lay in the fact that creators did not share n the form of royalty. It took many years for that to happen.

Two things stand out to me in that quote; one, it is unfair that Siegel and Shuster didn’t get more money, something that was rectified to a certain extent in the mid-seventies when Neal Adams and others pretty much shamed DC and Warner Brothers into coughing up some much deserved money. Bear in mind that I am not in anyway saying that Siegel and Shuster weren’t screwed out of a lot of cash because I think they were.

On the other hand the only reason Superman got as successful and remained in consistent publication even during the times when comic books were on life support is that a big company was pumping money into the property and keeping it in the public consciousness. I’m not saying everything the various powers that be have done over the years have been all sunshine and lollipops but at the same time to not give DC and it’s various owners credit for keeping Superman alive is unfair.

So to me, while I believe that the Siegels are entitled (not deserve, entitled) to a good deal of money I don’t think they should have any say in the day to day business of Superman. I just don’t think they’re qualified and being the widow and daughter of a creator doesn’t automatically mean they you can step into a creative role.

4. What happens next?

From the looks of it a lot of legal maneuvering. From the most recent update it seems that the word settlement is in everyone involved’s future. Things are far from over and then there’s the fact that the Shuster estate can get involved in a few years and that the character goes into public domain in 2033.

So again, what happens next?

Best case scenario (to me): The Siegels and Warner Brothers come to a financial agreement that leaves the day to day publishing duties to Warner Brothers and DC. Joanne and Laura collect royalties and DC and Warner Brothers continue to crank out comic books, movies, television series, etc. The only downside here is that DC and Warner Brothers might be reticent to start new titles or movie projects because of the money they would have to pay, but given how much money was wasted on getting a new Superman movie together before Superman Returns it seems like this is something that can be worked around. Warner Brothers settles with the Shuster Estate as well and they get a nice bit of cash. As long as everybody remains calm and doesn’t get too greedy things would be different but relatively normal.

Worst case scenario (again, to me): DC loses fifty percent of the copyright to the Siegels and then fifty percent to the Shuster estate and no longer has any control over the core components of Superman. They either have to create an entirely new character thus having to start continuity over yet again or cease publishing the comics. Superman becomes a character like the Lone Ranger or the Green Hornet; something controlled by an estate. Bad management leads the character to lapse into obscurity and Superman becomes a footnote in the history of culture.

Do I think either will happen? Well, more the first than the second but I honestly believe that no one knows where this is all going to end up.

5. Am I worried?


A little. Yeah. But not too much and not enough to get truly upset. I still have all of my Superman comics. I will still be able to buy back issues and, as long as they are published, trades and DVDs and all of that. I am hoping for the best but somewhat preparing for the worst.

In the end what will be, will be. I hate to get all Zen about the whole thing but there are very few people that have control over the situation and most of us are merely commentators on what is unfolding.

It is interesting, though. I can certainly say that. This thing may end up being the big comic book story of 2008. For right now, though, I’m going to sit and read and wait and comment when I feel the need.

More to follow…