Monday, July 23, 2007

Superboy's Super-Lawsuit: a Non-Update

I keep getting hits to my post from last year on the Superboy lawsuit, most recently from this CBR forum discussion entitled Is "S****b*y" a forbidden word at DC? from the recent return of Superboy-Prime in the Green Lantern/Sinestro Corps story, so I figured I'd write a non-update (since there has been little legal movement made public). The two big questions seem to be "How can Superboy and Superman be two different characters?" and "Why doesn't DC just pay the Siegels?". As with anything dealing with lawyers, it's complicated. It's also part of a much bigger legal battle involving Superman himself, but that's not relevant to this discussion here.

And I am not a lawyer, so this is my interpretation. (For a much more detailed description, read this series of Newarama articles.)

Way back when, Siegel and Shuster created Superman. In the origin story, there's a panel or two of baby Clark and then later teenage Clark at his parents graves. In an attempt to create a new series, Siegel proposed a concept called Superboy, who was Superman as a boy. DC (then National) passed on the concept but used it later without compensation. Siegel, naturally, was upset and sued. In 1947, a court ruled that Superboy was from a legal standpoint a different character than Superman - Superboy was a young Clark Kent in Smallville, while Superman was an adult in Metropolis with a different supporting cast. Yes, it sounds stupid to us, but that was the ruling then and it's the ruling that has shaped the case for the last 60 years.

Not being stupid, Siegel realized he could make more off of Superboy by selling the rights to DC than he could by selling it to someone else. DC bought the rights in 1948, which under copyright law lasted 28 years (to 1976). Congress later extended copyright time another 28 years (in this case, until 2004), at which point those who sold their copyrights decades earlier simply had to notify the rights holder that they would be taking back their copyright when the 56 years expired. Thus, under US copyright law, the Siegels had to take him back or else forfeit the rights to DC.

That's what the Siegels did, they told DC that when the time was up, they wanted Superboy back (my guess is to re-license it back). By then, DC was a cog in the great Time Warner empire, where comics characters make far more in licensing than they do in comics. Things like the Superman movie, which stars an adult Kal-el/Clark Kent in Metropolis, and the TV show "Smallville", which stars a young Kal-el/Clark Kent in Smallville. So the Siegels and Time Warner's lawyers went to court to fight over Superboy. Time Warner argued, basically, "how can they be different characters when one is just the grownup version of the other, and we own the grownup one?". The judge said "hold on, I've got this 1947 court case that said they were different, and not only that, but DC later bought the rights which indicated that they agreed with the original ruling that Superboy was owned by Siegel" and awarded Superboy to the Siegels. DC/Time Warner disagreed (if they lost the case, they'd have to pay out megabucks for Smallville episodes aired after the agreement ran out in 2004) and the case is on appeal. The judge also said that if it was up to him, he would rule that the Smallville show is a violation, but he noted that the rights to Smallville were not up for litigation in that particular case and that his statement had no legal bearing.

This all happened, apparently coincidentally, right around the climax of Infinite Crisis in which Kon-el died, so naturally the thought was that he was killed off because DC couldn't do a Superboy. Setting aside the lead time required to write, draw, and publish a comic, the only thing that DC "lost" was the right to have a character named Superboy who was a young Clark Kent in Smallville. In theory, Kon-el would probably have been safe since his background was different. Superboy of Earth-Prime is another story, though, since he really is a young Clark Kent. But if they just call him something else (like "Prime", for example) that's apparently enough to work around it. Superboy from the Legion's TV show was too close for comfort, so they worked around it by calling him "a young Superman". I have no idea about things like the recent Legion Showcase volume with Superboy on the cover, whether those reprints are covered under the same agreements as new material.

So that brings up the other frequently asked question, why doesn't DC just pay off the Siegels? Well, part of it is that the rights are not owned by DC Comics, it's that they're owned by Time Warner - which is a huge corporation. And corporations just hate to pay money to people who can set precedents and inspire others to file suit.

And that's the story. The Siegels requested Superboy back because under US law they are legally entitled to, and Time Warner won't pay them to use him. In April 2007, according to Time Warner's quarterly report, "the Company filed motions for partial summary judgment on various issues, including the unavailability of accounting for pre-termination and foreign works" regarding the Siegel lawsuit, as well as "the Company filed a motion for summary judgment on non-infringement of the Company's Smallville television series." These motions have not been ruled on yet, to my knowledge.

For more background read this Feb. 2005 article from Inside Counsel about DC's lawyer (prior to the ruling), April 2006 article from Variety, this very thorough April 2006 article from Newsarama (which contains links to the summaries of the actual legal documents), and the Time Warner Form 10-K from May 2006 (search for "Superboy").


MaGnUs said...



Michael said...

It's not up to DC, it's a Time Warner corporate issue. You don't go handing money over everytime someone says it's theirs. TW will drag the case out as long as they can with appeal after appeal to avoid paying. It's cheaper for them to litigate than pay.

As for the Shusters, why do you say the Siegels have to pay them? Siegel "created" the legal character of Superboy, Shuster was already off the comics by then (I think). Shuster's heirs (his nephew was his executor) have already filed for termination of copyright on their portion of Superman, which expires in 2013. Read the Newsarama article linked in my post.

You can't just say "Time Warner, pay them because I want you to," business doesn't work that way.

Garth Ranzz said...

Looks like we have an update, in favor of TimeWarner. Via Jeff Trexler's Trexfiles.