What would it be like if you had to fight Superman? You may be thinking, "Superman is the hero, so why would he fight me?" Work with us for a minute. After all, when the concept of "Superman" was first developed, he was a villain and not a hero.
Imagine for a moment going mano-a-mano against the Man of Steel. Just regular, mortal you against a brightly-garbed warrior who has super-strength, can fly, is faster than a speeding bullet, and has only one weakness. It doesn't sound like much fun. It would seem rather hopeless ... unless you had some Kryptonite in your back pocket.
The heirs of the two co-creators of the legendary comic book hero must feel just as hopeless at times in their fight over what they feel is "truth, justice and the American way." They have been battling the powerful media conglomerates, Warner Bros. and DC Comics, for many years in a series of (seemingly) never-ending lawsuits. The heirs claim entitlement to full ownership of the Superman copyrights.
Warner Bros. and DC Comics say the heirs never owned the rights and the two corporations have done nothing wrong. Their position is that even if the heirs did have valid claims at one time, the heirs agreed to let Warner and DC keep the copyrights in exchange for increased royalty payments and other compensation.
Superman was created by writer Jerome Siegel and illustrator Joseph Shuster, each credited with a 50% stake in the royalties. Their creation was picked up by DC Comics in 1937, who then hired the pair to create comic strips, with DC owning all work created from that point on. But the big battle centered on who owned the rights to the Superman character himself, as previously developed by Siegel and Shuster and as he first appeared in Action Comics Volume I in 1938.
Siegel and Shuster had an on-again, off-again relationship with DC, often suing over their rights, but ultimately returning to work for DC each time. Siegel and Shuster passed away in 1996 and 1992, respectively, without achieving their dream of reclaiming the rights to the Superman character.
New hope came with the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, and certain amendments to the law in 1999, which provided limited rights to creators such as Siegel and Shuster, and their heirs, to reclaim copyrights. If Warner Bros. and DC are in the role of Superman in this long-lasting battle, then surely the Copyright Act is the Kryptonite. But, that Act is riddled with exceptions and loopholes that make it very hard to successfully use.
In 1997, the Siegel heirs filed notice under the Copyright Act, formally seeking to reclaim 50% of the Superman copyrights. The Shuster heirs did the same in 2003. Both of these filings provoked litigation between the two families and Warner Bros./DC Comics.
The Siegel family enjoyed rare success under the Copyright Act, achieving a court ruling in 2008 in its favor. The Judge wrote at that time, "After seventy years, Jerome Siegel's heirs regain what he granted so long ago--the copyright in the Superman material that was published in Action Comics, Vol 1." In other words, this court ruling returned 50% control over the primary rights to the Superman character to the Siegel family. Warner and DC soon appealed.
A couple weeks ago, the Shuster family lost their bid to achieve the same result. The same United States District Court in California ruled against Shuster's heirs and in favor of Warner and DC. So that 50% share of the primary Superman rights still rests in corporate hands.
The Shuster heirs will soon appeal that ruling, which means the battle is far from over. The federal court appellate system will decide both cases.
Setting aside the complicated intricacies of the Copyright Act, and what specific copyrights could and could not be reclaimed by the heirs, both court cases turn primarily on the same important issue -- did the heirs already reach agreements with the corporations to give up their rights to the copyrights, in exchange for higher royalties and other benefits?
The recent court decision in the Shuster case held that Joseph Shuster's sister and brother did precisely that in 1992, when they agreed to accept higher royalties ($25,000 per year, for the rest of the sister's life) plus payment of Joseph's estate debts.