You’ve probably heard by now that a federal judge decided last week that Time Warner is no longer the sole proprietor of Superman. The court has ruled that the heirs of Jerome Siegel (of Siegel and Shuster) are entitled to a share of the US copyright to the character. The quick backstory goes like this: Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to Superman 70 years ago to Detective Comics for only $130. DC Comics has since given the creators each a $20,000-per-year annuity (later increased to $30,000). But then in 1997, Mrs. Siegel and her daughter served copyright termination notices which permits heirs to be able to recover rights to creations in certain situations (part of the 1976 Mickey Mouse copyright act). Compensation would be limited to any work created using the Superman character after their 1999 termination date.
And this gets a little more interesting because the Siegels don’t own copyright to the entire Superman universe, or to even the character of Superman, at least as you know him today. They only control the elements of the character/universe that were portrayed in Action Comics #1. Superman was really an early concept at that time and most of his powers, friends, enemies premiered in later editions. But Action Comics #1 contained mainly the following: the Superman name, the trademarked costume, Superman’s alter-ego Clark Kent and the character of Lois Lane are.
All is not over just yet. Warner Bros will appeal the court’s decision. But I honestly don’t see anyway the decision will be overturned.
So what does this mean for the movies? Well first off, Warner Bros probably owes the Siegel heirs a good chunk of change for Superman Returns. But the bigger news is that this might put both the Bryan Singer-helmed Superman sequel The Man of Steel and the already troubled Justice League of America in jeopardy. With the relatives of Siegel now officially part-owners of the character, who knows what the future may look like. It’s also possible that in 2013 the entire Superman copyright will be yanked out of Warner Bros’ hands completely, as Joe Shuster’s estate takes the other half.