March 30, 2008

When Does Selling The Rights Not Mean Selling The Rights? [11:47 am]

More headaches for licensees: Ruling Gives Heirs a Share of Superman Copyright

A federal judge here on Wednesday ruled that the heirs of Jerome Siegel — who 70 years ago sold the rights to the action hero he created with Joseph Shuster to Detective Comics for $130 — were entitled to claim a share of the United States copyright to the character. The ruling left intact Time Warner’s international rights to the character, which it has long owned through its DC Comics unit.

And it reserved for trial questions over how much the company may owe the Siegel heirs for use of the character since 1999, when their ownership is deemed to have been restored. Also to be resolved is whether the heirs are entitled to payments directly from Time Warner’s film unit, Warner Brothers, which took in $200 million at the domestic box office with “Superman Returns” in 2006, or only from the DC unit’s Superman profits.

[...] When Detective Comics bought 13 pages of work for its new Action Comics series the next year, the company sent Mr. Siegel a check for $130, and received in return a release from both creators granting the company rights to Superman “to have and hold forever,” the order noted.

In the late 1940s, a referee in a New York court upheld Detective Comics’ copyright, prompting Mr. Siegel and Mr. Shuster to drop their claim in exchange for $94,000. More than 30 years later, DC Comics (the successor to Detective Comics) gave the creators each a $20,000-per-year annuity that was later increased to $30,000. In 1997, however, Mrs. Siegel and her daughter served copyright termination notices under provisions of a 1976 law that permits heirs, under certain circumstances, to recover rights to creations.

See The Siegel Superman decision with comments and links to the opinion (local copy)

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