Sunday, August 05, 2007

Superboy's super-lawsuit: update

Well just a couple weeks after my non-update on the Superboy lawsuit, Scott from LegionWorld pointed me to this entry at Trexfiles (see also discussion at THE BEAT, Newsarama, Howling Curmudgeons, and soon to be more places).

The bottom line: DC successfully appealed the 2006 ruling, which said that the Siegels had successfully regained the rights to Superboy. The judge ruled that the 2006 case did not adequately interpret what a 1948 court said (and the 1948 case left some stuff out), and he needs to see more supporting documentation from both sides as to whether Superboy as published in "More Fun Comics" #101 was derivative of Superman. What it's going to boil down to is this: was there anything copyrightable in Siegel's original plans for Superboy, or was it basically derivative of Superman? They've got 30 days from July 27 to present their case, making the due date August 26.

Here's the long-winded explanation. I don't think that it's difficult to follow, and the few legalese terms I didn't recognize I was able to look up easily. Given that I am not a lawyer, here's how I read the court document (which was written July 27, 2007).

First, a timeline of the litigation is important while reading the document. Here, "DC" is used to refer to "Detective Comics" and its successors "National Comics", "Independent News", "National Periodical Publications", and "DC Comics" just because it all gets too confusing.

  • Siegel and Shuster co-created Superman independently of DC and sold the rights to DC in 1938 for $130.
  • In 1938 and again in 1940, Siegel pitched "Superboy" to DC, which had the right of first refusal. DC passed.
  • In 1944, DC published the first appearance of Superboy in "More Fun" #101.
  • In 1947, Siegel and Shuster sued DC, claiming that, among other things, (a) they were being cheated out of Superman profits, and (b) Superboy did not belong to DC since they passed on the character earlier.
  • Later in 1947, the court ruled that (a) Siegel and Shuster had sold all their rights to Superman and thus DC did not owe them anything, (b) Superboy was a work distinct from Superman and that DC should pay them.
  • In 1948, a court referee issued a 36-page Findings of Fact document detailing the Superboy case, which concluded that "Plaintiff Siegel is the originator and sole owner of the comic strip feature SUPERBOY", DC cannot publish any Superboy material without Siegel's consent, and Siegel is free to shop Superboy to any publisher.
  • Later in 1948, while the matter was on appeal, the parties settled, with DC paying Siegel and Shuster $94,000 and the men turning over all rights to Superman and Superboy to DC, and the Findings of Fact document vacated.
  • In 1969, Siegel and Shuster again sued DC. Under the copyright terms in effect at the time of creation, the copyright to Superman lasted 28 years, or somewhere around 1966. The two claimed that the copyright that they sold to DC had run out, but DC successfully claimed that as the copyright holders of record it was allowed to renew the copyright for another 28 years.
  • In 1976, Congress changed the copyright laws again, adding another 19 year extension, but also allowed authors to terminate their rights that they may have sold.
  • In 2002, the heirs of Siegel (now deceased) filed again for Superboy's copyright termination when it expired in 2004 (1948 + 28 = 1976, + 28 = 2004, or something like that).
  • In 2006, a judge ruled that the Siegels had successfully recaptured the rights to Superboy as a result of the original 1948 case. He left for a future trial whether or not DC (and parent Time Warner) had infringed on their rights since 2004 with things like the "Smallville" TV series. DC appealed.
  • In 2007, the appeal was released.

Well, the main question is "which takes precedence here, the original 1948 ruling which said that Superboy is separate from Superman and thus Siegel owns him, or the refereed settlement agreement later in which Siegel and Shuster sold any rights back to DC and the original ruling was vacated?"

After several pages of discussion of judicial estoppel (DC's 2006 case, which used the fact that the 1948 ruling was vacated, is opposite their 1976 case, which used the fact that the 1948 ruling was upheld. The judge ruled that the 1976 case citation was not relevant to the verdict, so this was not an issue.

Then the 2007 judge ruled on "collateral estoppel", which basically means that once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, you can't try that issue again. He said that based on New York State Law, the 1948 trial shouldn't be overturned based on 1976 laws since the trial couldn't take into account future laws. (I think that's what it says on page 28).

However, though copyright is a federal issue, not a state issue, state courts may litigate federal issues. Plus, the 1948 case was involved state claims of misappropriation of property, while the 2006 case is about federal copyrights. A finding of fact is not the same as an application of law to fact. (page 34) An earlier state court judgment does not preclude litigation in federal court. And basically, the 2006 judge was wrong when he equated the two. (page 37)

Next, the judge looks at whether Superboy was "work for hire", part of "joint authorship", "published", and was a "derivative work". He ruled that Superboy was not created as work for hire (page 53); sidesteps for the moment whether or not it was joint authorship (page 62); says that while the idea for Superboy was published in "More Fun" 101, the 1948 referee never said whether the material from Siegel's original script was published, and the court is in no position to do so (page 65); and cannot determine whether it was derivative without further information (page 72).

So... if you're still with me after all this, the judge ruled that both the Siegels and DC must submit within 30 days (by August 26) information which will help decide the case - was there anything copyrightable in Siegel's original plans for Superboy, or was it basically derivative of Superman? That's the only thing that the judge wants to hear about, so it's the critical issue. If the Siegels win, then the judge rules that DC did violate the copyright. If DC wins, then the judge rules that Superboy is derivative of Superman regardless of anything else.

Your homework: read the following case law, referenced in the document.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update, Michael.

Jeff Trexler said...

Nice work on summarizing a difficult case! And thanks for the thoughtful comment, which prompted a couple more thoughts on the case.

Garth Ranzz said...

Newsarama has posted another legal view from Tom Bondurant.

Michael said...

Yeah, I noticed. Interestingly, he came to a diametrically opposite interpretation of the legal opinion than over at Trexfiles. There, he said that the new ruling favors DC; Bondurant says that it favors the Siegels. Guess we'll see in a few weeks.

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