Superman decision fall out

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allstar2 Superman decision fall out
Okay a few links to tide you over.

Jeff Trexler continue his coverage of the case with a FAQ and an explanation of why DC isn’t “doomed.”

Comics Should Be Good! has an FAQ written in non legalese, and and interview with copyright attorney Brendan McFeely:

Despite the Court’s explicit ruling, several factors remain in play. “[DC] does not need to account for profits earned outside the US,” McFeely said. “[The Siegels] have only recaptured these rights within the United States. The court also found unequivocally that DC retains all rights outside the United States. I suspect that Siegels’ lawyers will find a way to appeal this.”

McFeely continued, “It’s a bit up in the air currently exactly what this means: the Court also found that major elements of the Superman mythos were created long after the original material published in ‘Action’ #1. Lex Luthor, Myxyzptlk, Titano, kryptonite, Kandor, Brainiac, the Phantom Zone and Zod, just for starters, were all created after ‘Action’ #1. But the key elements of Superman, his abilities, his appearance, his dual identities and his basic abilities were all present in that comic, so its very likely that DC and Time Warner will have to cough up a very, very large amount of money to the Siegels.”

A few historical links. Jamie Coville’s The History of Comic Books has some of the history surrounding the creation of Superman.

It should be known that Siegel and Shuster did not share in the wealth generated by Superman. The two had sold the rights to the characters along with the first story for 10 dollars a page. Siegel did ask for increases in page rates and did get them, but they still were only getting very small portion of the income Superman was generating. A 1941 magazine article in the Saturday Nights Evening Post went into detail about how the money was being distributed. It reported that in 1940 The Superman Shop got $75,000 dollars. $16,000 of which went to pay the staff and other expenses, leaving $59,000 to split between the two creators. Meanwhile Harry Donenfeld was bragging to reporters his take home pay from Superman was around $500,000. The article writer believed it to be half that, Liebowitz would only admit that it was over $100,000. Superman Inc., the company set up for Superman licensing made 1.5 million dollars that year. There was no mention on how much DC co-owner Jack Liebowitz was getting paid.


Mike Catron’s page has a letter Jerry Siegel wrote in 1975 attempting to get publicity for his continuing attempts to get what he felt was his share of the profits of Superman.

Obviously, this case will go to appeal, and the legal battle will go on for years and years. I couldn’t find any mention anywhere of the age of Joanne Siegel, the original inspiration for Lois Lane, but she has to be in her 90s. Begin to ponder the years of fighting this woman has gone through, and this legal victory — one that has come not through any groundbreaking legal precedent, but through the application of established copyright law — and you can’t help but think the good guys have won, at least for a day.

With that in mind, the attitudes displayed on many message boards accusing the Siegel family of “greed” or worrying that this is a terrible decision for the character of Superman are stunning examples of ignorance and selfishness. They are the reason we have laws that apply a higher degree of ethical and moral judgement than the rabble is capable of. Granted, copyright law is the not a subject that the man or woman on the street would be expected to have a sound grasp of. But the case of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel – living in poverty for years even as a character no ever denied they created made hundreds of millions of dollars — is infamous as one of the most unfortunate examples of financial disparity in the history of intellectual property.

And with his shaman’s magic, Grant Morrison managed to get their story, once more, into the pages of All-Star Superman. The story of Siegel and Shuster is the story of comics, in all its shoddiness, inspiration and endless battle.

The law finally caught up.

Comments

  1. Thank you Heidi – you summed it up perfectly. Fandom has *really* embarrassed itself this go-round.

    “Begin to ponder the years of fighting this woman has gone through, and this legal victory — one that has come not through any groundbreaking legal precedent, but through the application of established copyright law — and you can’t help but think the good guys have won, at least for a day. ”

    Nail, meet head.

  2. kwaku says:

    Thanks for educating.
    I wish more people would talk about what Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel had to go through while their character was making other people millions of dollars instead of calling people cooperate tools.
    Speaking only for myself, I knew Shuster and Siegel got a raw deal but I had no idea just how bad it was for them and their families. To a lesser degree it’s like finding out out what “Manifest Destiny” really meant the Native Americans.

    On another point, that Grant Morrison is something else.

  3. Brian Spence says:

    Any real fans of comics know that the creators got screwed. The greed comes from the companies that swindled child labor who didn’t have access to legal representation. It’s an outrage that the DC/WB threw their lawyers at this case until the creators died. Thankfully, they had heirs to continue the case.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I guess I don’t get this really. Now I have not been following this at all, even though I’m aware that this legal debate has been going on for a long time. Here’s what I don’t get though:

    If they signed a contract granting rights of the character to someone else, then why is it that they are deserving of the rights now?

    I’m not trying to be crass, and there is no sarcasm in that question. I genuinely am asking because I don’t know. To me it seems greatly unfortunate that these two very bright men struggled as much as they did from the stories I’ve heard. However, it seems to me that it was their choice to sign away the rights to this character, and at the time of course no one ever thought that Superman would become…well, Superman. They thought it would be another character that might be lost in the comic book annals.

    Perhaps they were railroaded into signing something, or they used lawyer-ese to slip something past these guys, so they didn’t even know they were giving up the rights to Superman. Obviously that would be deplorable, but so far as I understand it they signed a contract, they were paid, and the transaction was over.

    I guess it sounds like the current work-for-hire debate. You either choose to sign the paper and give up the rights, or you choose to not sign the paper and not have that job. It’d be great if everybody could be paid for everything they come up with for perpetuity, but sometimes you just gotta pay the bills and it makes more sense to sign the paper so you can make rent.

    I’ve tried to spend some time looking it up, but I can’t seem to find a quick, concise answer (and I don’t really have the time to delve through the old files on this one) as to why they really have a legal claim to the profits of something they sold. And again, I’m looking for enlightenment, not trying to play Devil’s advocate (I say because tone of voice is often lost in the comments section of the internet). If anybody could very briefly sum it up (a huge task, I know), that would help me put this all in context. Thanks.

  5. Sphinx Magoo says:

    I’m pretty sure that most of the fandom reaction is a knee-jerk reaction to fear that this decision will affect future publication of Superman stories.

    Proper education ought to help. I’m pretty sure TwoMorrows had an article in one of their magazines (Comic Book Artist, perhaps? I don’t recall…) that outlined Siegel and Schuster’s fight and Neal Adams’ involvement in their fight during the 70’s. I’ll write them and see if they have it available so that they can shed some perspective and light upon what’s been going on.

  6. CBrown says:

    I basically agree with what Alan David Doane wrote over at comicbookgalaxy.com : “My take is basically that, contracts and legal niceties aside, whenever a company or corporation benefits from its employees’ or contractors’ work in a way that neither party could have anticipated, and which results in unimagined and unimaginable magnitudes of revenue for the company or corporation, it’s not just the ethical thing to do to recognize the actual creators of the unexpected windfall; it’s good business. ”

    You know, after Star Wars became the sensation it did, George Lucas gave the principal actors a percentage of the profits. He was not legally bound to, he just did because it was the right thing to do and the smart thing to do, to give them a share of something that succeeded so far beyond expectations. It was not a legal contractural requirement, but to not do so would be dickish.

    And yeah, I’d just finished the latest All-Star Superman literally an hour before that story broke, and I was like, “woooooo . . . spooky!”

  7. Pedro Bouça says:

    Well, Hergé (and now his heirs) has owned Tintin since its inception and the character generated millions both for him AND his publishers. I don’t see how Superman could be different.

    And all should remember that outside the US creator-owned comics characters are the NORM, not the exception! Maybe that’s why the US comics industry has been unhealthy for so long…

    Best,
    Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

  8. Pedro Bouça says:

    Jonathan,

    It has been explained on the more exaustive articles out there, but the reader’s digest version is that copyright duration has been extended many times since the original deal (then it was 56 years, nowadays it’s 95). When the US Congress voted those extensions, it included a mechanism that allowed the original creator to be able to get his rights back after the expiration of the original copyright, which happened for Superman in 1994. In 1999, after a few years attempting a settlement, Siegel’s heirs initiated the process to get the rights back.

    That’s the essence of the lawsuit. It is not an annulation of the original contract, which would already been void if copyright law hadn’t changed, but a totally legal mechanism introduced by that same law to make up for the fact that copyrights did get extended.

    Best,
    Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

  9. Jonathan, it’s really not like the ongoing work-for-hire debate at all. No one’s questioning the validity of the contract S&S signed. But they didn’t *own * the rights to Superman “forever” – they owned a copyright that was good for a maximum of 56 years. That’s what was sold to DC.

    The 56 years expired in 1994. Congress in 1976 extended the copyright period (which is the only reason DC retains ANY copyright at all), but at the same time it built in a provision allowing the original creators to reclaim the copyright during the period of extension. Siegel’s heirs (and now Shuster’s as well) have exercised that provision.

    DC got *exactly* what it bargained for in 1938 and then some. This is not a matter of Siegel’s heirs reneging on any deal – they were granted a new right, by Congress, in 1976 and have availed themselves of it. The law is squarely on their side.

    One can, of course, quibble with whether that law was wise or good policy or whatever, but again – without the same law upon which the Siegels are now relying, DC would have lost the copyright altogether in 1994.

  10. Damn simultaneous posting – what Hunter said.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Hunter and matches —

    Thanks, that helps. It’s been very hard for me to find that synopsis anywhere. I think that makes sense to me for the most part, though I’d have to disagree with what CBrown said in one regard: its not anyone’s ethical duty to pay more compensation than what was agreed upon just because a project is a runaway success. Good business? Maybe, and that will always be debated. But its certainly not a matter of an unethical move by DC. They wrote up a contract, they paid the money for it, and then it went on to be a success.

    It’s great that S&S are being acknowledged for what they created, but everything I have read so far paints the situation as they were taken advantage of, or that they were treated unfairly, or that they were unjustly kept from some of the money that they deserved. Perhaps I’m to blame for not reading enough about this, but so far every article seems to depict a situation where these guys were poor and suffering because some large scale corporation was refusing to pay them money they had earned, when in fact that isn’t the case at all. They are only due money since 1999 (or 94, or whatever year it was, these extensions are confusing as hell). I guess I’m confused by the people that say things like “finally, after 80 years of waiting, they get the rights back!” when really it’s only been 10 years or so that they’ve had a claim to the rights. I think that was what has always confused me about this situation.

    My editorializing aside, thanks for the clarification.

    — Jonathan

  12. Well, they probably *were* taken advantage of, given the time in which all this happened. But while that adds an emotional backdrop to the story, it’s not the basis for the heirs’ claim now.

    And no worries re: asking for clarification. I think asking questions is a totally cool thing to do – I wish *more* people were doing that instead of just spouting verbal diarrhea without making any effort to understand the issues. Once one takes the time to get educated about this the facts are very cut-and-dry – that’s why it’s incredibly sad to see so much venom spewed by people speaking from a position of ignorance.

  13. The Beat says:

    Jonathan read any of the FAQ’s I’ve inked to, they lay out the situation perfectly.

    >>>Perhaps I’m to blame for not reading enough about this, but so far every article seems to depict a situation where these guys were poor and suffering because some large scale corporation was refusing to pay them money they had earned, when in fact that isn’t the case at all.

    Correct, it is a corporation’s right to take advantage of creative people everywhere.

    What you do not understand is that Siegel fought for 80 years to get the rights back to Superman. And he won several cases but always settled for less than the rights were worth. Because in those days you were a lucky creator who happened to find a kind wonderful publisher who would give you $130 for a property they made millions off of while you lived in poverty without even your name on the character everyone acknowledges you created.

    Siegel lived in a world where this was the norm. The result? An industry composed of naive dreamers and the unscrupulous businessmen (mostly) who took advantage of them.

    We still have the same kinds of situations going on now, but more options than ever. And many creators are still naive about business, but hopefully there is more information out there to avail themselves of.

    Jonathan, you ask questions with an open mind, but this whole “Well they signed it away why should they get it back?” attitude is the same kind of attitude on display in the Milgram experiment. Unthinking allegiance to the rule of law is not the answer.

    Yes, National Periodicals took advantage of two young creators and laughed all the way to the bank. Is that the kind of behavior we should laud? Sure S&S signed a bad deal. Should not National/DC/WB be taken to task and shamed for perpetuating this unscrupulous behavior? Would ANY self respecting creator do business with a company that was so unscrupulous?

    If you don’t think “unscrupulous” applies, then read some of the historical matter and how Siegel was always being given empty promises. Donnenfeld and company knew they had taken these men for a ride. And they laughed all the way to the bank.

    The law does go both ways. The 1976 recapture provision was partly inspired by the case of Siegel and Shuster. That’s the ultimate irony here.

  14. A-rod says:

    “Should not National/DC/WB be taken to task and shamed for perpetuating this unscrupulous behavior? Would ANY self respecting creator do business with a company that was so unscrupulous?”

    Isn’t the real question, Would any self respecting CONSUMER do business with a company that was so unscroupulous? The driving force behind this was money and the money all came from our pockets. DC/WB laughed all the way to the bank with bags of OUR money that we willingly gave them for a property they unscroupulously(?) stole.

    I don’t ask how did THEY let this happen? But rather, How did WE let this happen? If Supes’ taught me one thing ,it’s that we always have a choice!

  15. brett says:

    This is great news for the Siegel heirs but I don’t believe it will change anything in the immediate future for DC as far as how Superman ‘comics’ are published. DC will continue to publish Superman and anyone who wants to read them, will be able to.

    I suspect that, in the worst case scenario, Time Warner will enter into an agreement with the Siegel heirs offering monetary compensation and / or license the rights to continue publishing.

    Isn’t that similiar to what they do with Wonder Woman? As far as I know, and I don’t know all the particulars, DC doesn’t own Wonder Woman outright either. Doesn’t DC license the publishing rights to Wonder Woman from the Marston estate? It would seem logical they would do something similiar with Superman.

    I’m surprised no one has brought up the Wonder Woman situation since DC doesn’t own her either. What is tricky though is that while the Siegel heirs now retain their copyright, I believe DC does hold the trademark on Superman….

  16. Imagine the WB lawyers are drafting an all-inclusive master license right now.

  17. Tommy Raiko says:

    With regard to Wonder Woman, although it had been the case that DC’s grant of publishing rights from William Maston was more of a (perhaps-typical-in-book-publishing) licensing deal–often simplified as “publish Wonder Woman or lose rights to the chracter!”–it’s also apparently true that that is no longer the case; DC’s apparently renegotiated with the Martson estate so as to now own the character outright.

  18. Jonathan says:

    Heidi —

    I know we’re playing in your sandbox, so I have to very respectfully disagree with some of what you said there. I have no doubt that there was plenty of scheisty lawyering going on behind the scenes, and perhaps even out and out lying to people’s faces, and so forth. I’ll concede that as a possibility because I just am flat ignorant of what went on between these two (or three) parties.

    Additionally, I’ll concede that in this particular case after the copyright expires that one party has to pay the other for whatever money was made off of this character. That seems to be more or less what was stated in this recent ruling, and I don’t bicker with that at all.

    Hell at this point I don’t even want to quibble over the specifics of this case because its a much more general scenario at debate here, I think. In my mind here’s the very basic situation that we’re discussing…

    Person A comes up with a great idea and sells it to Company B and signs a contract explaining exactly what the transaction entails. Person A is paid a small pittance while Company B makes an exorbitant amount.

    I don’t see an ethical problem with that, and here’s why: it was Person A’s CHOICE to sign that contract. If you’ve got a great idea, then don’t sell it for less than you think it’s worth. In this abstract situation (again, no longer discussing S&S’s particulars), the person made a decision that whatever small fee they received was worth signing this contract. Perhaps its because of their circumstances (e.g. I have rent to pay next week) or perhaps its because that’s the current trend in the business (e.g. no other company in town will pay a higher fee), and so on. For whatever reason, I believe personally in a code of ethics that requires me to abide by whatever agreements I make. For example, if I say I’m going to pick a friend up at the airport, then I’m going to pick them up at the airport. Similarly, if I sell you a good or service, I expect payment for it. But I don’t expect more than the agreed upon price. To me, that’s judging “fairness” of the deal based solely on one factor: success. If Company B loses money on the deal, could they recoup some of their fee from Person A? I think everyone realizes that certainly they could not. To me it seems that you’re blaming one party for being successful.

    I don’t see a parallel between this and that experiment either. It may be a bit off track, but following the letter of the law is what has led to this favorable decision, but I don’t want to digress.

    To me, it is unethical to think someone owes me more than my agreed upon price regardless of the success of the deal.

    That being said, if you have a chance to get some more money from it, then go ahead and try. If you have a chance to regain control of the property, then go ahead and try. Give it a shot all you want, but you are not OWED anything more than what you agreed upon, and the insinuation here has been that Mr. Siegel and Mr. Schuster were owed more than what they were paid for their comic book. I disagree with that. I don’t want to pass judgment on either side of this argument because I simply don’t know what was agreed upon or what was said or what was done. It seems to me that all of the coverage I have read so far wants to condemn the corporation (which is portrayed as big, bad, and evil) and defend the creator (which is portrayed as small, good, and righteous) when I feel like it can’t be that open and shut.

    Am I glad that they struggled, that they missed out on riches and fortune, that they did not share in all of the profits from the idea they hatched? Absolutely not! But I don’t think they were owed anything more than what they agreed upon. I wish they had told DC “no thanks” put this in the drawer for later, hammered out another script real quick, and saved Superman for a day when they could enter into a business deal that would have allowed them to reap the windfall from this character. Sadly, that’s not the reality.

    — Jonathan

  19. The Beat says:

    Jonathan, so let’s play devil’s advocate a bit more: do you think Harry Donenfield was someone worthy of support? People make the CHOICE to go to crooked phone dealers, auto mechanics, pet shops and counterfeit bag manufacturers all the time. And the law shuts down those places that are found to be acting illegally and unethically.

    Donenfeld didn nothing illegal. But he did do something unethical. I believe that with every fibre of my being. And so does the law (minus the fibre part), or they wouldn’t have given the Siegel family a chance to recapture the copyright. Look at it this way, it is in publishers/studios BEST INTEREST to keep creators happy so that they will continue to do their best work for them and stay out of their competitors hands.

    I do not believe unethical behavior on this level — even if it falls within the scope of the law — should be rewarded, lauded or patronized.

  20. brett says:

    Regarding DC owning Wonder Woman, that must be within the last couple of years. I recall when Perez went to revamp Wonder Woman (1987), DC published the interim mini by Trina Robbins because of the necessity to ‘publish WW or lose the rights’.

    Still, if DC was able to renegotiate with the Marston estate, I’m sure they’ll be able to come up with a Super Sweet deal for the Siegels and will continue to publish unfettered… and they do own the trademarks to Superman so this won’t affect readers in any way.

  21. Tommy Raiko says:

    > Regarding DC owning Wonder Woman, that must be within the last
    > couple of years. I recall when Perez went to revamp Wonder Woman
    > (1987), DC published the interim mini by Trina Robbins because of the
    > necessity to ‘publish WW or lose the rights’.

    Yeah, the publish-WW-or-lose-rights factor was eidently still in place back when the Trina Robbins miniseries was publsihed (that was 20 years ago! Aargh! I’m getting old!) but things have apparently changed since then.

    I’ve been surfing around for a reference and haven’t found anything authoritative quickly, but at the bottom of this page:
    http://www.mykey3000.com/cosmicteams/profiles/wonderwoman.html
    there’s a reference to a 2005 message board post by Kurt Busiek indicating his understanding of the WW renegotiation…

  22. brett says:

    Thanks for the tip, Heidi.

    I surmise Time Warner / DC will do whatever it takes to negotiate and retain publishing rights to Superman. This will obviously benefit the Siegel estate and DC, as the primary publisher of Superman, for anyone who wants to read the comic.

  23. “The law does go both ways. The 1976 recapture provision was partly inspired by the case of Siegel and Shuster. That’s the ultimate irony here.”

    That’s… not really irony. In fact, it’s about the opposite. A new law inspired by a person’s plight ends up benefiting the person who was plighted? Not at all unexpected.

  24. It’s again ironic that art, supposedly the realm of human thinking and action where one avoids selling out in favor of personal expression, must be “sold” to be published at all.

    Or, does a Superman in a Cleveland kid’s head still fly?

    I put a letter from Jerry to Whitney Ellsworth up on my site. Just to give some corroborating evidence that this was something they were interested in very early, not just the 60s and 70s.

    http://www.greendoorfilms.com/blog

  25. Jonathan says:

    Heidi —

    The difference between a crooked mechanic’s shop is that they are fraudulently representing themselves and the services they provide. In this instance however, to the best of my limited understanding, Mr. Siegel and Mr. Schuster knew full well that they were signing away the rights to the character for $130. If they were snookered into signing something that said ABC when they believed it said XYZ, that would be another matter altogether.

    I don’t really know what Harry Donenfield did. I am ignorant of that, and I’ve tried to make that a caveat to everything I’ve said up until and including now. But if he told these two guys “hey, I’ll give you $130 for that story, and you’ll have to sign this contract giving us the copyright,” then I don’t see that as unethical. However, he very well might have not said this, or hidden the fact that they would lose the copyright, or attempted to block them from understanding the contract, etc. etc. Obviously those would be deplorable acts.

    I don’t think the law agrees that Donenfield did anything unethical or illegal, but again my understanding of IP law is not very broad. I do believe that the law agrees that since the copyright has now expired that Mr. Siegel’s heirs own half of it, and Time Warner owes some of the profits from the time it expired (1999 is what I’m reading) until today as well as moving forward. This wasn’t a trial to determine guilt or innocence.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I’ve read it seems you believe that DC/Time Warner/Donenfield owe money for every Superman related dollar they have made since his inception. That’s what I can’t support. I do believe this recent ruling was both just and reasonable as based on IP law they are due some compensation for the gains made since 1999 off of the Superman character. Perhaps I could understand your side of things better if you would explain to me more precisely what the unethical transgression was. I don’t find it unethical to tell someone “If you sign a release of rights, I will pay you $130 for your story.”

    That belief doesn’t prevent me from assessing someone as an out-and-out slimeball. Mr. Donenfield may very well have been one, but like I keep saying I just don’t know whether he was or not. The only thing I’m saying here is paying someone for the rights to their character is not inherently unethical.

    Now ignorance and naivety obviously can and do play into these considerations, but if you’ve got a contract to read, and you sign it without understanding what it says, that’s shame on you. I do however fully well recognize that deals like this that happened close to a hundred years ago are why today I realize essential truths like: don’t sign a contract unless you understand it or else you might lose a lot of money.

    — Jonathan

  26. The Beat says:

    Jonathan, read some of the historical links in the post and they will answer many of your questions.

  27. Better still, read Gerry Jones’ Men of Tomorrow. Fantastic book.

    It’s worth noting that Siegel and Shuster did dispute the terms of their contract as early as the ’40s, claiming that they were not given as large a piece of the tie-in profits (from toys, the radio show, etc.) that they claimed Donnefeld and Liebowitz had promised them. They lost the first suit mainly because those promises had been verbal and were not reflected in the specific language of the contract. (They also had very poor legal representation, which didn’t help.) It was a matter of “sure, of course you’ll get this. No, we don’t need to put it into a contract, kids….”

    So yes, other Jonathan (nice name), according to Jerry Siegel, the two were screwed by being talked into a contract that didn’t say what they thought it did. At the very least, the whole situation could be considered shady–and Donnefeld was well-known for shady semi-legal dealings.

  28. While I hate using analogies I think this is a situation where one is required because some people just aren’t getting it.

    Say a seemingly nice door to door vacuum salesman gets inside the door of a weak willed little old ladies home. Upon getting in he becomes not so nice. With a mix of badgering, intimidation and even getting a bit angry, he manages to get her to buy a vacuum cleaner she doesn’t need or can really afford.

    Say the salesman was smart and didn’t break any laws in doing this. Do we commend him for making that sale? No, because he exhibited scumbag behaviour. We might agree that the weak willed little old lady should stood up for herself and ordered him out of his home and called the cops if he refused. But still, he clearly knew she was a weak willed and preyed upon that to make a sale. Another salesperson would realize that even though they probably *could* badger the woman into buying something, doing so is not a good/moral/ethical thing and choose not to.

    Society is much better off when people when people realize they could benefit by taking advantage of somebody, but chose not to do it even if they can get away with it. When people behave this way we don’t always have to watch our backs, not trust anybody, and suspiciously assume everybody is out to screw us. It’s the way the world oughta be if you don’t mind my saying so. Because nobody is perfect and we all got our flaws that somebody can take advantage of in some way. The other way is very negative, depressing and leads to a lot of stress and anguish.

    Now enter Donenfeld and Liebowitz.

    They were two successful and smart businessmen during the great depression. Jerry and Joe were about 23 years old when they signed over the rights to Superman. They were poor young adults who didn’t know squat about copyright and trademark laws. They had been working in comics for a few years now trying to eek out a living working on original comic books when none had shown to make a profit yet. Because Donenfeld and Liebowitz came across as nice guys and promised them that they’d be looked after both in terms of splitting the profits and guarding their rights the two naively placed their trust in them and signed the contract as is.

    When Superman became a smash sensation bigger than anybody had expected or realized, the two owners went back on their word and literally kept 97%+ of the multi-million profits to themselves. Then they successfully worked to reduce the amount that they did give Siegel and Shuster. Much of Jerry and Joe’s income came from the Superman “shop” that made the Superman comics. When Jerry was serving during WWII, DC convinced Shuster to let DC do the Superman books internally. When Siegel came out from the War, he discovered the shop was closed down and wanted to start it up again. DC refused. From there on out the two were likely working for page rates and getting royalties from the Superman comic strip.

    And I won’t even get into the Superboy situation as it makes this look mellow in comparison. They lost that court case for a reason.

    In summary, Donenfeld and Liebowitz showed scumbag like behaviour. They could have chose to honour their word and fairly share all the wealth Superman was generating. But they chose not to. And while both they and their families lived the rest of their lives as multi-millionaires, Siegel and Shuster would spend the bulk of their lives in total poverty. It was a dick move and they’ve long been called out on it. This ruling goes towards setting things right again, at least for their heirs.

  29. Mark Coale says:

    This story breaking at the same time as the release of The Ten Cent Plague makes reading about the executives in the 40s/50s much more intersting.

  30. James Van Hise says:

    Making promises to creators of comics in the 1940s and then not living up to them because they were verbal was not confined to DC. Timely promised Simon & Kirby profits on Captain America #1 if it sold more than a few hundred thousand copies. It sold about two million copies. Simon & Kirby should have gotten about 30 grand (a fortune in 1941). Instead they got nothing and quit Timely in disgust. Comic book companies have always regarded artists and writers as being interchangeable cogs in the corporate machine, believing that the next guy could do what the previous guy did instead of recognizing that some people have talent far in excess of other people doing the same job. Will Eisner saw the way the companies robbed creators and saw to it that rights to The Spirit were returned to him when it ceased publication. It took him years to really benefit from that foresight, but benefit he did. Bob Kane saw to it that he retained rights to Batman in 1937 (which probably wouldn’t have been granted to him had Batman come after Superman and the possibilies of big profits were already proven).

  31. “They are the reason we have laws that apply a higher degree of ethical and moral judgement than the rabble is capable of. ”

    Let’s not go overboard here, Heidi. This is purely a question of copyright extension, and who gets the extended period – the original creator or the later purchaser. There are perfectly good logical reasons for giving it to the original creator, as otherwise the purchaser gets a windfall by acquiring an extended copyright period that he never paid for.

    But as I understand it, it’s purely and simply a question of whether the Siegels can tick all the boxes and whether they jumped through all the procedural hoops. It makes no difference whether the original deal was good or bad. It may well be that in this particular case, the law has redressed an injustice in the original deal, but that’s just coincidence.

  32. Jonathan says:

    Heidi —

    It seems that I’ll have to do my own research to answer the questions that I have, and when I have the time I will indeed check out the links provided, but I just don’t have that much time during my work day sadly. The problem I had was that no one could explain to me what this guy (or guys) did to S&S that was so unethical; it was merely stated “they got screwed.” All I know is they signed a contract, but I don’t know any of the details surrounding it which is ultimately what will fill in this picture.

    Jamie —

    I don’t think your analogy really helps me in this instance. I could very well understand that as a possible scenario, but it doesn’t tell me what Mr. Donenfield did that makes him similar to this aforementioned vacuum cleaner salesman. What I need here to understand the situation is what he said and did to Mr. Siegel and Mr. Schuster that makes him akin to the door-to-door pest. I appreciate the effort, but it’s the details that are being left out of the story that I now need to seek out on my own to figure out how I feel about the situation and how it went down.

    I thought I could get a synopsis of what happened and understand this debate, but it seems that it’s much murkier and much harder to understand than I had previously estimated. Hopefully I’ll be able to find some reliable sources to enlighten me.

    — Jonathan

  33. bad wolf says:

    ” I just don’t have that much time during my work day sadly”? Dude, you just wrote 5+ very wordy posts beggin Heidi to take HER valuable time to explain something to you which you persistently refused to listen to, instead chewing on some old Objectivist legal POV, and now you whine about being forced to look something up for yourself?

    You, sir, will never be “enlightened.”

  34. The Beat says:

    Paul: The law was created to enable creators to renegotiate deals that were not as favorable to them as they could have been. As Kurt Busiek pointed out in another forum, DC was free to renegotiate at anytime since 1976, so should we cry over their “bad deal” now? I appreciate your legal logic, but I must be allowed my gloating period.

    Jonathan, I have to agree with “bad wolf” above. Maybe reading Jamie Coville’s post or some of the links would enlighten you more than this whole “me am unfrozen caveman Objectivist…no understand your ‘linkage'” business. When you have had time to read the relevant material and feel qualified to have an opinion, please come back.

  35. Heidi: I have no particular sympathy for DC. My point is simply that a fair result in the circumstances of a particular case in no way demonstrates that the law is fair more generally, let alone that it displays “a higher degree of ethical and moral judgement than the rabble.” And, of course, the whole law is premised on the notion of copyright extension, which many people would argue is a Very Bad Thing.

  36. Jonathan says:

    Writing 5 posts over the course of two days has taken possibly a grand total of maybe 15 minutes of my time, whereas researching this topic has apparently taken decades to be fully uncover the matter. I’ve never had a genuine attempt to learn something so utterly shit all over.

  37. The Beat says:

    Jonathan:

    Well, Jamie did give his overview on the characters of Donenfeld and Liebowitz in his post above. In most of the accounts of the era, Donenfeld and Liebowitz were KNOWN to be hard-nosed/unscrupulous publishers. Siegel is KNOWN to have been promised the moon and the stars which he, yes foolishly, never got in writing. Donenfeld was a bootlegger and pornographer who lied about going to business school.

    So I don’t really get what your question was. Siegel and Shuster were naive young dreamers who got taken advantage of over and over and over, and never really had good advice from anyone who was trustworthy until the end of their lives. Donenfeld and Leibowitz were opportunistic publishers who had no respect for the medium they pioneered. We’re still paying the price for their contempt.

    So, you can say S&S got what they deserved. Did they deserve more than $130 for creating the greatest superhero of all times? Legally, no. Ethically? Well, that’s where it’s a judgment call.

    Overall, I prefer not to take the side of people like Donenfeld.

  38. Here is some of the scummy things that Donenfeld & Liebowitz did:

    – Promised Jerry he and Shuster they would share the wealth and their rights would be looked after. They clearly shared very little of the wealth and they were reminded that DC owned the character and they had no rights when they wanted to negotiate a much better deal for the Superman newspaper strip.

    – Took away the Superman shop when Siegel was in serving during WW2.

    – Refuse to allow them to restart the shop, thereby reducing their income.

    – Turned down Superboy, waited until Siegel was in the Army and then began publishing him. I believe Siegel knew his chances at getting a fair deal for Superman was slim once the real nature of the DC owners was revealed to him. I’m sure he was planning on negotiating a *much* better contract for Superboy. Donenfeld and Liebowitz likely knew they wouldn’t be able to snow Jerry a 2nd time and simply elected to wait until he was drafted and start publishing it without paying him anything. They stuck Superboy in an anthology title and kept him there probably to help mitigate any losses by arguing Superboy was only a part of the reason for the title’s profits. When the case was settled Superboy got his own title.

    – Rather than work out a fair deal with Siegel and Shuster, let things go until the point the two felt they had to sue DC. They did the typical drag them out until they can’t afford to pay their lawyers anymore tactic which forced them to settle for a fraction of the amount Superboy was worth.

    – Removed Siegel and Shusters byline from any and all Superman products. Even when somebody did put it on, they made sure to take it off again.

    – In the 50s Joe Shuster was spotted doing delivery work in shabby clothes outside of DC’s building. DC asked him come in the next day, they gave him $100 for an overcoat to hide the shabby clothes and told him to never come to their building again.

    – God knows what Wiesinger put him through during the 50s when he began writing for DC again. To be fair Wiesinger was shitty to pretty much all the freelancers.

    – During the 60/70s lawsuit over the 28 year copyright renewal they suggested to Siegel that if he dropped his case they would negotiate a fair settlement. He dropped his case and then there was no settlement offer from DC.

    – Knew full well that the creators were extremely poor. Shuster was legally blind, living on welfare and supported in part by his brother. Siegel at one point had to get low paying 9-5 jobs (I’ve heard mail clerk and security guard) but still didn’t care even though they were multi-millionaires.

    – When Robinson and Adams were doing the negotiations for Siegel and Shuster the last major sticking point was creator credits. It was something *somebody* at DC really did not want the creators to get, but they did eventually get it. I strongly suspect if it were not for Jay Emmett, Warner Brothers Executive Vice President who cared more about the Superman movie going through with no negative PR than keeping Siegel and Shuster poor there wouldn’t have been any deal.

    And there may or may not have been some dickish behaviour going on behind the scenes over the last 9 years or so while this current lawsuit is ongoing.

  39. Alan Coil says:

    $30,000 (close to roughly half of $59,000) was a huge amount in 1941, probably equivalent to around $200,000 today. (And I’m not arguing that S&S didn’t get the short end of the deal, just that they made a lot of money for the time.)

    Jamie said—

    “Donenfeld and Liebowitz likely knew they wouldn’t be able to snow Jerry a 2nd time and simply elected to wait until he was drafted and start publishing it without paying him anything.”
    _____

    I don’t know if ‘simply elected to wait until he was drafted’ are the correct words, only because they probably wouldn’t have known he was going to be drafted, but other than that minor quibble, I agree.

  40. I think it is worthwhile to mention that big entertainment conglomerates like Disney and Warner Bros are often considered to be the reason copyright law continues to be extended.

    The negative effects of these deals on creators is one thing, but it is worth considering that the delay of these works entering the public domain is a cultural disaster. After a reasonable amount of time these creations were intended by the founding fathers to become part of our culture for anyone to use without fear of penalty. Instead you might get a cease-and-desist for posting a family video on YouTube that shows you singing the Happy Birthday song (copyright owned by Warner-Chappell).

Trackbacks

  1. […] Superman decision fall out from THE BEAT […]

  2. […] How Siegel and Shuster created our world Thursday April 24, 2008, 8:26 am In what Heidi MacDonald aptly described as “shaman’s magic,” several weeks ago Grant Morrison portrayed the young Siegel and Shuster changing the world in a comic released on the very same day that a federal judge issued his historic ruling in the Superman case. […]

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