Monday, March 28, 2011

The final (open) letter from Joanne Siegel to Warner Bros.

Ms. Joanne Siegel was the wife of Jerry Siegel, the writer who, with artist Joe Shuster, first brought Superman to the world.  Ms. Siegel recently passed, leaving her daughter to complete the drawn-out lawsuit between the Siegels and Warner Bros. as the Siegels attempt to reclaim legal rights to the Superman property.

The subject of Siegel & Shuster's ownership vs. National/DC/WB has dragged on and off since the 1950's, seemingly finding some conclusion for a while in the 1970's.  Its a thorny issue, and moral arguments could actually be made for both sides (despite the fact that WB is, of course, a big, scary coporation).  Siegel and Shuster did sell the property to National in the late 1930's, and (at the time) that meant perpetual ownership by National and any subsequent owners of National.

When Siegel and Shuster challenged this idea in court (in the 1950's, I think), they lost and they lost their jobs as work-for-hire employees.  Siegel would return to DC where he "created" Superboy* as a work-for-hire.  Of late, laws have changed, and the Siegel estate took WB (who bought National decades ago) to court.  In the mid-00's, the Siegels won back a lot of rights to at least the subjects shown in Action Comics #1 - such as Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane.  And, I'd wager, guy freaking out in the corner.

Aside from that, I find the case completely confusing.  And I understand the frustration on both sides, I guess.

Its, of course, easy to pin this on DC and WB as a big, scary corporation, especially versus Joanne Siegel and her daughter, both of whom suffered from health issues the past few years.  But its also easy to point to the work done by the corporations who've managed the Superman property for 70-odd years and point to everything they've done to keep Superman from becoming a fad that disappeared like Hopalong Cassidy and pet rocks.  The law has, in fact, changed.  Its not a moral issue so much as a legalistic quagmire that actual attorneys and not fanboys like myself should really believe we can properly argue.

Today an open letter from Joanne Siegel made the rounds of the comics interwebs, and its a bit heartbreaking.  The letter reads a bit like someone trying to find common ground with estranged family, which...  in a way, that's exactly what's happened.  Its family fighting over an estate of sorts.

At the same time... its hard to ignore Ms. Siegel's threats embedded in the letter.  Clearly she expects the court of public opinion to wind up on her side, even as she also seems aware DC is holding out legally, waiting to see if she and her daughter might simply pass away before anything is resolved.

And, while I've only heard things third hand, rumors swirl that the attorney representing the Siegels is a bit of a shady character, but that maybe if those grapefruit baskets had kept coming from Time Warner, maybe this whole affair would never have resurfaced...

I don't know. 

What I have never felt entirely comfortable with is how copyright passes.  Until the 1990's, copyright expired after about 75 years.  But then thing thing happened that had never happened before...  huge companies had been formed around things like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.  Disney did some lobbying and found legislators more than accomodating, and that aspect of copyright was more or less extended in perpetuity.  This enrages some, and in some small way, I can see why.  Some great works have been passed from generation to generation due to a lack of copyright. 

But I'm also not sure letting squatters move in the minute a copyright lifts and ride on 75 years of someone else's hard work and management is necessarily the right thing to do, either.  Walt Disney may be dead, but the engine created under his watchful eye is still in motion.  Just because we can no longer shake the hand of the man who created Mickey Mouse, does that mean we open the door for anyone to use the character or copy the works and make a dime off Disney?  Or Superman?  or Batman?  or Spider-Man? 

I guess I like the idea of responsible stewardship, even if by corporations.  I tend to think of it as "what's the difference between a national park and the rolling green hills that suddenly were covered in chintzy looking condos?"  Basically, I trust someone with a financial interest in Mickey Mouse's longevity, all others are suspect.  I strongly suspect this same notion is not shared by the younger generation of comic fans for whom co-option and re-use of anything one can find on the internet is an entitlement.  Call me old school.

Fortunately, both the Siegels and WB seem to have a vested interest in the multi-million dollar Superman business, and so I don't see either side wishing to let anything lapse into public domain, except, possibly, out of spite.

*for reasons that escape me, Superboy is legally considered a separate character from Superman.  Which tells me that judges and juries are not about to suffer through a lengthy discussion of continuity.  That said, its a bit like saying "oh, the Arthur that pulls the sword from the stone is a totally different character from the one who gets killed by Mordred."


Anonymous said...

For an "author" created work, it's the lifetime of the creator PLUS 70years. For a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

The first listed is MORE than enough time to compensate a creator, his/her family and his pet immortal tortoise for his/her creation. At a certain point, an author or an author's assigns should not dictate to the entire world how to use a creative work. If so, you get crazy things like the James Joyce estate that sues every entity that even references a sentence from the work of Joyce. That's absurd.

Copyrights is a government created right. You don't get it naturally when you are born. It's born out of the principal that society should reward creative expression because it's HARD WORK. But for that right, you implicitly agree to GIVE IT UP after a period of time, not to hold everyone ransom because their story uses the name Clark and Clark has superpowers. Creative works should be passed to the public domain at some certain point.

Frankly, the duration of a copyright should be shortened. At this point in time, neither WB nor the Seigels should get to dictate to society how to use Superman.


The League said...

See, but I'm not sure why that is... I am not trying to be difficult, but "oh, its old, anyone who wants to use it should be able to do so..." isn't terribly compelling to me as a logical argument. We don't treat physical objects that way, be it a painting or home or baseball bats. We don't just hand out the recipe to Coke. It seems that its fictional works and characters that fall into this particular realm. Nor do we allow companies to falsely identify themselves as, say "Coca-Cola" simply because the company has passed an imaginary line in the sand.

I don't see why age means, necessarily, that anyone can make money off a property WB has spent millions to imbue with value, ie - ongoing effort and hard work.

We've only had mass communication for a few generations, and are just now seeing the first trademarks of what's sure to be an avalanche of everything from Disney Princesses to Brady Bunch kids to the Rollerball franchise.

Anonymous said...

There's a huge difference between a trademark and a copyright. A trademark is tort based right, where it works on the continued use of the "name" or "logo" of a company. There are vastly different rules between a copyright and a trademark. Trademarks protect against consumer confusion. If there is no confusion, you can't assert trademark infringement. There defined legal tests for consumer confusion to prove in a court of law. That's why you can have SAFEGUARD for soap and SAFEGUARD for locks. It doesn't matter if no one is confused in copyrights. If it's similar it's infringement. That is a powerful deterrent to other creators.

Again, a copyright is a wholly government created right. You don't naturally get it. In addition, when you take possession of a tangible object like a bat you don't get to stop all others from using a bat similar to yours. We call copyrights intellectual property for a reason. It's not land or tangible. You are stating that one family or corporation can stop the rest of humanity from creating a character that is from another world and imbued with superpowers. The origin of copyrights again is that society created it for creators. Society can take it away. If you take advantage of copyright laws you also make an implicit agreement to give it up at some certain future point. Society created these laws to encourage creativity and art. You keep allowing a copyright to exist in perpetuity, you will kill creativity. If Shakespeare's estate was give copyrights in perpetuity, the world would be a much more barren place for creative expression.

Also, a trademark can be lost if not continued to be used. You have to prove you are using your trademark correctly under the law every 5 years. You don't have to do that in copyrights. The author isn't required to continue to produce works under the copyright.

If you think comics, books and movies are expensive now. Wait until you provide copyright perpetuity to the Tolkein, Speilberg, George Lucas and J.K. Rowling estates.


Anonymous said...

In addition, the Coca Cola recipe is a trade secret, NOT a copyright.

They make it a trade secret for the very reason that they cannot copyright it. You can't make a creative work, make it secret so that no one knows what it is, then sue for copyright infringement against all your competitors when no one even knows what's written, expressed or filmed. That's insane.


The League said...

Ah! See, that all makes sense. This is why we keep attorneys around this place.

Anonymous said...

I need to be fed regularly and tips are welcome.