Friday, March 28, 2008

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Sometimes the good guys win. It just takes an awfully long time.

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the first Superman story for publication. They were paid ten dollars per page for a grand total of $130. At that moment, they handed the publisher the ownership of one of the twentieth century's most popular and profitable characters. For the first few years, they were well compensated by being paid to continue to produce Superman. But as the character's popularity spread to radio, newspapers, movies and animated cartoons, Siegel and Shuster realized that they were not sharing in the wealth.

In the 1940's, they sued to regain the copyright and lost. They dropped their claim in exchange for a cash settlement. In the 1970s, when the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie was being made, a concerted publicity campaign by cartoonists on behalf of Siegel and Shuster shamed Warner Bros, who had bought Superman's publisher, into providing an annual pension for the character's creators.

Under a provision of the copyright law, the original owners of a property have the ability to regain their copyright. Both Siegel and Shuster are dead, but Siegel's widow and daughter have taken Warner Bros. to court and gotten a decision which restores a portion of Superman's copyright to them.

There is much that still must be negotiated and undoubtedly there will be more time spent in court. However, one of the great pop culture miscarriages of justice has been rectified. You can read about the decision here and here.

Siegel and Shuster's history should be taught in every art and animation school in the world. No creator should ever sign away ownership of a property without receiving a binding, ongoing financial interest in all the revenue that the property generates. Creators should think long and hard before giving control of their characters to corporate interests, regardless of the financial deal offered. If J.K. Rowling had sold Harry Potter as a spec movie script, she would not own the characters and would be considerably less wealthy than she is today. It was her good fortune that she created Harry Potter as a book, where it is routine for authors to own their copyrights.

Don't trust to fortune. It took 70 years for Siegel and Shuster to receive justice and neither lived long enough to savor it. Be smarter than they were.


Jinny Liang said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I think we really need to have business courses in our program to teach these topics such as copyright, rights of artists, contracts, pricing and ethical guidelines.

It is quite scary how very few students in our program even know what the term "work for hire" is....

Steve Schnier said...

That's right. Always LICENSE rather than SELL your creation.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

Excellent post, Mark. Thank you.