The movie industry has always made its fortune on the back of memorable characters and in a market where such icons are becoming fewer and further between, many movie studios have turned towards comic book properties to develop movie franchises, especially where the character is already recognisable by the general public. The phenomenal success of “The Dark Knight” and the “Spider-Man” franchise is perhaps a good indicator of the public’s affection for long-standing comic book heroes; even lesser-known titles such as “Iron Man”, “Watchmen” and “Wolverine” have now become hugely successful movies in their own right, and Hollywood shows no sign of backing away from Superheroes as a source of income.
Warner Bros. in particular have always led the way in this genre, releasing the first “Batman” movie in the late 1980s, and the first “Superman” movie at the end of the 1970s. Warners is the parent company of DC Comics, who are the publishers and owners of both characters and has a slate of similar properties scheduled for release over the next ten years based on lesser-known characters such as “The Flash” and “Green Lantern” as well as a re-launch of the “Superman” franchise and a project featuring all of their Superhero characters and including Superman AND Batman: the long-anticipated “Justice League”.
Although 2006’s “Superman Returns” was not the huge success Warners hoped for, earning around $400 Million worldwide against a budget of $200 Million, the studio are looking to get another instalment in cinemas for a number of reasons, one of which is the character’s ongoing status as a pop culture icon over 70 years after his first appearance (coming in at second on VH1’s “Top Pop Culture Icons” 2004 Survey) and the fact that, if they don’t move quickly, Warners will lose the right to use the character at all in any future movies.
To cut a very long story short, the family of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel have been in a dispute with Warners for the past few years in an effort to gain ownership of the copyright in the character of Superman. Superman was originally created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for DC Comics and became popular almost immediately – so much so that a bitter copyright dispute broke out in 1946 between the publisher, Siegel and Shuster, when the creators claimed that they had never been paid enough for their work on the character and attempted to win the rights to what was becoming one of the most successful fictional characters of the 20th century.
The Court ruled against them then, finding that DC Comics had validly purchased the rights to the character, which led to Siegel and Shuster largely retreating into obscurity until 1967, when a second unsuccessful attempt was launched to obtain the rights to the character which they created.
In 1975, both launched a publicity campaign to protest at how they had been treated by both DC and their new parent Warners over the years, which saw the writers being awarded a lifetime pension of $20,000 a year. After Siegel’s death in 1996, his family attempted to terminate DC and Warners’ copyright of the character, which eventually came before the Court again in 2004 when the family issued copyright infringement proceedings against Warner Bros. and to decide how much of a share of the copyright in Superman belonged to Siegel’s estate.
After the best part of 70 years, a Judge in California decided in June 2008 that Siegel was entitled to a share in the copyright and, as such, a share in Warners’ profits from the character, although only since the current copyright dispute began in 1999. This was only part of the case, however. At the trial in July of this year, the Judge ruled that Siegel and Shuster would become the owners of the copyright to Superman in 2013. This is a huge ruling for copyright law and, although an American decision, was decided along similar lines to the case of Fisher v Brooker – the Whiter Shade Of Pale case – what saw organist Fisher awarded a share in the copyright of one of the most popular songs ever released.
What’s also common in both decisions is that fact that the Court only allowed the Claimants to recover damages from a much later date than the original release; in Brooker’s case he will only be entitled to ongoing profits made by “Pale” and in the Superman case, Siegel and Shuster are only entitled to claim against DC Comics rather than their much more wealthy parent company and only for profits made after 1999, when the film rights to the character were renegotiated.
Amongst all of this legal argument, the most important issue is that in four years time, neither Warners or DC will be able to do anything with their most popular character without the permission of the families of his creators. Warners is now under tremendous pressure to get their next Superman movie off the ground before the Court’s deadline of 2011, and given that “Superman Returns” was in development for well over 10 years before reaching the screen, Warners may end up in a position where they have to rush out an inferior project which could ultimately have a knock-on effect upon audiences, who may not choose to come out in similar numbers for any subsequent sequels.
Not only that, but over the past week Siegel has won the copyright to various parts of Superman’s backstory, which means that any film projects which Warners can get underway will not be able to use certain key elements of the other movies and comics. This means that all future projects involving the “Man Of Steel” will need to pay a large chunk of their profits to the families of his creators, which many may feel is perfectly fair as the general position has always been that whoever created the written, musical or graphic work is the owner of any copyright which attaches to it.
The lesson here, then, has to be that wherever your business is based, you must deal with the ownership of copyright at the earliest possible opportunity, whether a comics company, a movie studio or ANY business that places value on any kind of written, artistic or musical work. If not, and the original creators decide that they weren’t given a fair share of a popular character, the Courts may now allow them a much longer period of time than you may expect to claw back any rights and one of the cornerstones of your business could be in serious jeopardy. You may end up falling victim to a villain that even the Man of Steel can’t defeat – the Lawyers.