Friday, July 20, 2012

Super Complicated

Readers of this blog will know how interested I am in creators' rights.  Some of the most famous characters of 20th century pop culture were created under dubious legal and financial conditions.  The copyright to Superman was transferred from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer and artist, to their publisher for the sum of $130.  That was $10 per page for their first 13 page Superman story.  In order to get paid for their work, they lost control of their creation.

The latest U.S. copyright law allows for creators who sold their copyrights to regain them during specific time periods.  If the creators are deceased, their heirs have the right to pursue the copyright.

Jerry Seigel's heirs have filed to regain their half of the Superman copyright.  Joe Shuster's heirs are eligible to file in the near future.  Both are represented by attorney Marc Toberoff.

On the face of it, it's a nice, clear story.  Two little guys were taken advantage of, lost millions of dollars as a result, and now their families are going up against a large multinational corporation to get just compensation.  A David and Goliath story with an ending that should be a foregone conclusion.

However, the story is a lot more complicated and I urge you to read this entry by Daniel Best.  Even if you skip over the actual legal documents and just read Best's commentary (scattered throughout the documents), you can see that the families have made some poor decisions and done some questionable things.  Their lawyer appears to be working for himself as much or more than for his clients.  While I am not a fan of large corporations, Paul Levitz, a comics fan who eventually became publisher of DC Comics, acted more ethically than others in this dispute.

If nothing else, this situation just emphasizes the importance of owning creative properties.  It is important for creative people to understand the problems that can result from giving up ownership.  While the animation business doesn't perfectly mirror the comics business, the issues are the same and stakes are equally high.  If you have created something on your own and are looking for somebody else to finance it or market it, make sure you understand the repercussions of transferring copyright and allowing someone else to establish the trademark.  If not, the result might be several lifetimes of pain and legal squabbling.

No comments: