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Warner Bros Secures Commercial Control of Superman 196

Posted by samzenpus
from the faster-than-a-speeding-cease-and-desist dept.
AliasMarlowe writes "Warner Bros have won an important legal victory over the heirs of one of the creators of Superman, giving it total commercial control of the superhero. An appeals panel unanimously ruled that Jerome Siegel's heirs must abide by a 2001 letter accepting Warner's offer for their 50% share of Superman. The letter was never formally turned into a contract, but the Judge considered that it represented an oral agreement, which was binding. Warner Brothers now owns 100% of the Superman franchise."
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Warner Bros Secures Commercial Control of Superman

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  • Public domain (Score:5, Interesting)

    by geek (5680) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:07PM (#42575651) Homepage

    How is Superman not public domain by now? He first showed up in 1938. That's over 70 years ago. This is ridiculous.

  • by cpt kangarooski (3773) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @03:00PM (#42576005) Homepage

    No, the trademark would likely suffer genericide.

    Trademarks are not a functional substitute for copyrights. If a work is in the public domain, anyone can make copies of it and can make derivative works based on it. (Of course, a character is not quite the same as the first work in which it appears -- aspects of the Superman character which were introduced later, such as the ability to fly, weakness to kryptonite, changes to the costume, etc. would not be available until the works introducing those things also hit the public domain)

    A trademark only functions when it indicates that a marked good or service originates from a particular source. If anyone can now create Superman comics, movies, tv shows, etc., because Action Comics #1 is in the public domain, this means that the use of the Superman name or character isn't indicating a single source. Thus, the trademark dies.

    A good example of this was Kellogg v. National Buscuit. The latter had invented and patented a cereal and sold it using the mark SHREDDED WHEAT. When the patent expired, Kellogg started making it too, and also called it SHREDDED WHEAT. The Supreme Court decided that since SHREDDED WHEAT merely described the product, anyone could use the name now that the patent had run out and anyone could make the product.

    There might be an argument for a surviving trademark on the title of the comic, not restricting the use of the name for the character, but it would be fairly weak, IMO. The use of the character name as a trademark for wholly unrelated goods and services would still work -- PETER PAN for bus travel services and for peanut butter doesn't interfere with, or suffer interference from, the character of Peter Pan being in the public domain in the US. But a viable SUPERMAN brand for tax preparation services or auto parts is probably small comfort to Warner Bros.

    And meanwhile, if the fans want to stick to a particular canon, they can just look for the brand of the publisher, which is how it's done for other public domain works. You can go buy a copy of Shakespeare as it was printed in the First Folio, you can go buy copies of the bad quartos, you can buy the edited versions made by Bowdler, etc. No one is harmed by there being more choice, as all you have to do is ignore the ones you don't like. A trademark on Shakespeare is not necessary.

  • by alexander_686 (957440) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @03:22PM (#42576149)

    Yes, the horror – just imagine a dark superman played by Nicolas Cage:

    http://thepopcultist.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/how-producer-jon-peters-and-a-giant-spider-nearly-ruined-superman/ [wordpress.com]

    Now – on a more serious note – I like seeing big budget movies based on comics, which only makes economic sense if they can sell the “official” trademarked merchandise.

    On the other hand I don’t like our culture perpetually controlled by large corporations. Honestly, I am a bit more offended that Marvel / DC has a joint trademark on “super heroes”. Still trying to pick my way though this.

  • by cpt kangarooski (3773) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:22PM (#42576903) Homepage

    Why do you think that big budget superhero movies are only economically viable if one source controls both the copyright on the characters and story used in the movie as well as for all merchandise featuring those characters, etc?

    It certainly isn't true for big budget fairy tale movies. The last one Disney did was based on Rapunzel, had a budget of $260 million, and the main character and basic plot are in the public domain. And I'm sure that there were plenty of people trying to free ride on it by putting out toys and things based on the fairy tale. Yet they seem to have survived.

    And also, why must we have big budget movies anyway? And if we must, why must they rely on such excessive copyrights to be made? Are there no alternatives?

  • by Truekaiser (724672) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:35PM (#42576965)

    Disney is the prime example of abuse of copyright.
    they take stories from the public domain, make them into movies that only have a little semblance to the original. then try to sue the crap out of anyone who uses the same public domain work to make their own version.

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