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Warner Bros Secures Commercial Control of Superman 196

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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:01PM (#42575609)

    Then all this arguing would've been for nothing.

    • Copyright?

    • by cdecoro ( 882384 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:15PM (#42575707)

      No; the character would continue to be protected by trademark rights. The name "Superman", the S logo, etc. are all indicators that a particular work that bears them originate from the "actual" owner of the marks; i.e., they are trademarks. And trademark is indefinite, so long as they continue in use. But that is how it should be: not just every movie studio should be able to make a Superman movie, because this would undermine the "real"/canonical Superman line. Fans could not be sure that the movie that they were going to see was the "official" Superman; the protection of trademark is therefore important to provide information to the consumer.

      Now, that said, I agree that copyright's derivative work protection should not continue to prevent similar stories, so long as there is no risk of customer confusion. If another studio wants to make a movie about "Superduperman," from the planet Argon, who flies around in his caped underwear while saving the world, they should have every right to do so -- even while the copyright for "Superman" still runs.

      • by just_a_monkey ( 1004343 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:34PM (#42575849)

        Fans could not be sure that the movie that they were going to see was the "official" Superman

        The... The horror!

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

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


          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.

            • And also, why must we have big budget movies anyway?

              It's difficult to make superhero movies without special effects, which require lots of skilled labour and expensive equipment.

              • really? computers are expensive? not these days, they are not. and you can take as long as you want to render. you don't 'lose money' if you take a while to make a movie. especially if the compute power costs very little.

                soon, we won't even need real actors or real scenes.

                in 10 yrs or less, garage shops can make decent quality movies. and I can't wait until the big companies get pushed OUT of the biz!

                • by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @07:48PM (#42577753)

                  First, computers are expensive – or at least the rendering farms that ILM and Pixar uses. Second – and more importantly - CGI is expensive not because of the computers, but because of skilled artists.

                  And when we no longer need real actors – what do we have? Films generated by optimized algorithms – never having been touched by human hands?

                  I think it is going to be a very long time before computers supplement humans and garages can push out the majors. Look, I am amazed at what small indies can do now. Monsters is a great example – made for 800k [] Small shops can do an excellent level of quality if they narrowly focus their work.

                  Let’s say you wanted to do your own version of LotR can you tell computer to drop in 10,000 Orcs? Maybe – if you were going to use the generic Orc. But you probably wouldn’t want to do that – too much like paint by numbers – it would have the look and feel of the dozens of other fan flicks out there. And that is just one detail of thousands.

                  Blockbusters are going to want to fashion their own unique style which for the foreseeable future will take a lot of talented (and very expensive artists)

                • you don't 'lose money' if you take a while to make a movie.

                  This isn't even remotely close to true. Movies can live or die by current trends. It's hard enough to predict what people are going to want in a year, let alone X amount of time it takes to render effects on an old PC.

                  soon, we won't even need real actors or real scenes.

                  This is a nightmarish fantasy. I want to connect emotionally with the people in the movie. Even in some explosion-filled Michael Bay movie, I'd rather root for a flesh-and-blood generic action guy than some sort of simulation.

                  While it can make for interesting experiments, one thing we shouldn'

              • Well, while it is getting cheaper and easier all the time (there is fan-made stuff on YouTube that would've been beyond the abilities and budgets of special effects houses in the recent past), the real key, IMO is in what sort of movie you want to make.

                If you absolutely must have a couple of guys throwing buildings at each other, it could get pricey, that's true. OTOH, if you're careful to write the script with an eye toward the budget, and yet can still produce a good story, you could probably do well. But

            • Find the parent of a young girl and ask them about Disney’s “Princess” line and how much they spend on it. Disney’s plan is to make ½ the profit on the lunch boxes, theme parks, dolls, etc.

              As to the substitutes – eh. GoBots vs. Transformers. Amazon’s Fire vs. Apple IPad min. Little kids demand the “real” thing – not the generic.

              And yes, Disney tries to move public domain stuff into the private domain – and that is one of the things I struggle

              • Well, I certainly never said that Disney doesn't do merchandizing -- they're pros at it. Just that they don't seem to be dissuaded from even starting just because they'll have some competition from small fry.

                Nor did I say that the substitutes were better, or even on par. GoBots sucked by the way. I even remember that at one point, they had toy robots that turned into rocks of all the stupid things.

                My point is simply that absolute control isn't necessary to make money, even big money. So perhaps we could sta

      • Try calling something "Coca-Cola". But at the same time the old ads (like Santa Clause) are long out of copyright and all over the intenet. Just not for selling said fizzy beverage.

      • Disagree. After a reasonable time, it should pass into the public domain. Anyone should be able to make a superman movie, comic, etc.

        Hell, look how many "reboots" comics and sci-fi have recently received. Anyone should be able to reboot (or stick to the original) after things pass into PD - and things should pass.

        • by Austerity Empowers ( 669817 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:03PM (#42576791)

          I agree for stories, movies, etc. But I'm not sure it's a bad thing for corporations to be able to trademark their name, a logo and a limited number of other things to distinguish themselves. If I want an Apple product, I do not want some taiwanese shitshop selling me their "Apple", I want an Apple.

      • There are limits to which a trademark can be used to extend copyright-like exclusive rights after the expiry of the copyright term in the United States. Dastar v. Fox [].
      • Nearly all "official" stories suck big time. I'd rather we could choose from all the unofficial stories and hopefully decent ones would prosper. It is not like copyright is required to make megabucks -- look at how Disney made nearly all his success off the public domain.

        I'm not a moron who wants to see "reboots" every decade (or less) because 1 studio figures it is easier than taking the risk on a "new" story (which itself is just new to film... and likely the screen writers will have fucked up the transf

      • 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 pla ( 258480 )
        But that is how it should be: not just every movie studio should be able to make a Cinderella movie


        Yes, trademarks also need to expire (not claiming they legally do, but they must, eventually). Fortunately, on that front, We The People can influence policy, simply by using them "wrong": Every time you xerox a document, you ride an elevator, you wipe snot with a kleenex, you photoshop a picture - You help speed the demise of a trademark via genericization.
      • by tragedy ( 27079 )

        For me, the only reason to worry about whether it's the "official" character or not is to determine if the story fits within the canon or not. The thing is, we're living in a post-continuity world as far as characters like Superman are concerned. Every incarnation in every medium stands alone. The continuity in the comics is bjorked to Krypton and back and the editors have no qualms about retconning and re-retconning and rebooting and re-inventing and re-imagining.

      • How long should this last? Should the heirs of Thomas Malory have veto power over every retelling of the King Arthur story, to make sure that it conforms to the "official" and "canonical" version?

      • george lucas did to star wars, what your society has done with all of nature's gifts

      • Why get speculative when there's a real example? DC and Marvel agreed years ago to let each other use terms such as superpowers, superhuman, etc. but litigate if any other competitor did. For an example of what this really already led to, read any of many ABC comics where you will find "science heroes" with "science powers".

      • But that is how it should be: not just every movie studio should be able to make a Superman movie, because this would undermine the "real"/canonical Superman line.

        There is no canonical Superman line. Even the movies have rebooted the whole mess several times. Furthermore, Sturgeon's Law also works in reverse, so any fandom with large enough following will produce works far surpassing their source material; why not let them?

        The real problem with modern copyright law is that seeks to block derived works, yet

      • Well I'm of 2 minds on this. On the one hand yes copyrights are stupid and a waste now, they should go back to the original terms set forth by the founding fathers. if you can't make money off an idea in 25 years you suck at business and somebody else needs to have a shot at it.

        That said the "Zombie Tu Pac" thing has me kinda disturbed. Originally I thought "25 years and that it" but imagine if this tech continues to get better, how would say the family of Monroe like it if they put a digital her in a gangb

        • There is actually a separate right of publicity, which is what you're thinking of. Depending on your jurisdiction, it may not survive our death (since harming your reputation once you've died doesn't harm you), or in places where there tend to be lobbies of famous people's relatives, it could last a lot longer.

          Personally, I favor the ends-at-death side. People may have a right to their own reputations, for good or ill, but no one should control the reputation of another person.

          The world might not be particu

      • But that is how it should be: not just every movie studio should be able to make a Superman movie, because this would undermine the "real"/canonical Superman line.

        Does that really matters? I'm more of a japanese manga guy, but according to my limited knowledge about american comics, superman is 70+ years old already, has been rebooted several times, has multiple writers, multiple artists, multiple timelines, movies, video games, cartoons. I seriously have no idea what is cannon in the Superman world. Considering everything that is officially by DC/WarnerBros release doesn't feel right. That would be like considering (the majority of the) Dragon Ball Z movies cannon,

    • Then all this arguing would've been for nothing.

      Imagine there are no corporations, it's easy if you try; no copyright hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine -- people only being people, living for today. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one; I hope some day everyone will join us, and the world will be as one.

  • Licensing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Cruciform ( 42896 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:06PM (#42575645) Homepage

    I think the most sensible thing for creators to do now is license rights, as opposed to sell. I'd rather copyright just go away after 20 years, opening up a whole new realm of fiction based on the original, but with the current system licensing seems better than someone getting the rights to your creation and then locking you out of it completely.
    To a big company buying up the rights from the little guys isn't a huge expense in the scheme of things, while an artist or writer may find that the offer they are facing will keep a roof over their head for a year or two longer, putting them at a disadvantage at the bargaining table.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Licensing out is for CORPORATIONS, not puny serfs. Corporations are people, IS life itself, not people. People die easily and do not matter in the long run.
      The same laws that protected and ensured prosperity to INDIANS, now apply to us all.
      God help us all.

    • Re:Licensing (Score:4, Informative)

      by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @08:48PM (#42578049)

      If you want to see what happens when you do that all you have to do is jump across the pond to England. IIRC, the copyright defaults to creator. Each time a new writer introduces a new character rights get muddled. Terry Nation was for year able to keep Dalek’s off of Doctor Who until he got his fair share. This makes shared universe difficult. One can’t just grab a minor character in the Hulk – like Wolverine - and transfer them to the X-Men under a different writer.

      And I am not saying your idea is a bad one – just that it would impacts. You just don’t see the big universe with multiple creators over there.

      Neil Gaiman has done some good writing on the copyright dispute with Miracle Man. Check out his blog.

  • Public domain (Score:5, Interesting)

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

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

    • Re:Public domain (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jetra ( 2622687 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:10PM (#42575673)
      Same reason Mickey Mouse isn't public domain yet. Copyright gets an extension when it nears the end.
      • Re:Public domain (Score:5, Informative)

        by mabhatter654 ( 561290 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:45PM (#42575931)

        Mickey Mouse will never be public domain... The Mouse is used all over Disney every day as a trademark.

        The specific WORKS would be public domain... So copy them all day, post on the Internets. Trying to make NEW works would be difficult because Disney is still using that character.

        • by Jetra ( 2622687 )
          Is there even a difference between trademark and copyright? Both seem to go hand-in-hand.
        • Re:Public domain (Score:5, Informative)

          by Ironhandx ( 1762146 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @04:21PM (#42576549)

          Nothing of Mickey Mouse is in the public domain. The common joke is that copyright length is MIckey Mouse's birthday + 1.

          No work from after 1923 will enter the public domain until 2019 unless its creator specifically puts it there.

          Its complete fucking horse shit and that particular amendment should be unanimously voted off the books.

          Unfortunately there are far too many politicians in the pockets of the big conglomerates such as disney for that to ever happen.

          If copyright law had stayed as it was we'd have things right up into the 50's entering the public domain now.

          • by skegg ( 666571 )

            Unfortunately there are far too many politicians in the pockets of the big conglomerates

            Sad but true.

          • Why not put in for a prtition at I understand they are all the rage.

          • The truly ironic part is that most big media houses, especially disney, owe their success and fortunes to long dead authors. In Disneys case, they whole-sale ripped off the Brothers Grim. Then lobbied congress to get the laws changed so others could do the same to them. They're STILL ripping off the brothers grim to this day... but now they rename their movies so they're trademark-able... "Tangled" anyone?

          • Actually, the original copyright law was 14 years with a one-time 14 year extension. Had that stayed, we would be getting non-renewed works from 1999 and renewed works from 1985. Yes, Back to the Future would be entering Public Domain this year with the sequels following in 2017 and 2018. (It's a pretty safe assumption that they would have been renewed.) The complete, original Star Wars trilogy would have entered Public Domain a couple of years ago. (George could still release Original Trilogy Version

        • That is not true. Trademark laws do not apply in this case. Once copyright ended anyone could make new stories of Mickey Mouse or Superman. It is a moot point anyways, because they will never let copyright expire...
          • The Superman Shield ("S") may be a trademark. If so, and the owner kept the mark in use, no image of Superman showing the shield could be legally used in a manner violating trademark protection.
            • Maybe so, and even that is a stretch, but any slightly modified image should serve to replace it, if that were the case.
    • Trademarks don't expire.

      Can you imagine the chaos if they did?

    • Authors death + 70 years.

      • Re:Public domain (Score:4, Informative)

        by Nemyst ( 1383049 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:27PM (#42575791) Homepage

        And at author's death + 69 years, a new law is passed to extend copyright to author's death + 140 years.

      • by feedayeen ( 1322473 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:37PM (#42575861)

        Authors death + 70 years.

        Superman was invented 75 years ago in 1938, in 2013 a god awful movie comes out which must be stopped at all costs. Due to the Grandfather Paradox, we can not stop the creation of Superman; but if Superman falls into the Public Domain before the movie is released, Warner Bros will crease production immediately, knowing that they will never make money off of it. This gives our time traveling hero a short window of 5 years to track down and kill Jerome Siegel before it is too late.

        This idea is not protected in any way, if somebody wants to make it into a movie, please do!

        • Copyright protects individual works. The character may fall out of copyright, but the films and cartoons and the like will remain in copyright until they expire... if they are ever alloweed to. You predictions of chaos and lack of marketability are exagerated.

          • Copyright protects individual works. The character may fall out of copyright, but the films and cartoons and the like will remain in copyright until they expire... if they are ever alloweed to. You predictions of chaos and lack of marketability are exagerated.

            This is Hollywood, we like our facts like we like our celebrities, plastic.

        • He won't go into the public domain until at least 2033 at the earliest, movie or no movie.

        • Due to the Grandfather Paradox, we can not stop the creation of Superman

          But thank goodness we were able to go back in time and prevent the creation of the superhero named Grandfather Paradox. He was awful. Superman is a nice trade-off.

          • But thank goodness we were able to go back in time and prevent the creation of the superhero named Grandfather Paradox. He was awful. Superman is a nice trade-off.

            I agree. Every issue he defeated the bad guy the same way. Grandfather Paradox would strap a bomb to the villain and send him back in time so that, when the bomb exploded, it killed the villain's grandfather thus erasing the villain from history. His sidekick, Tachyon Lad, was annoying too.

    • Re:Public domain (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Blue Stone ( 582566 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @02:17PM (#42575723) Homepage Journal

      >How is Superman not public domain by now?

      'Important', wealthy people own copyrights. Those copyrights expire. When they're nearly up, they lobby the government to make sure they can keep making money. The government listens to them because they have money and can therefore 'spread it around' (the government is corrupt) which results in a policy of 'the needs of the wealthy outweigh the needs of the many'.

      Copyright will never end on mickey Mouse until he becomes an unprofitable commodity. The powerful and wealthy will bribe the easily corrupted and you'll get the 'best democracy money can buy'.

      I hope that's answered your question.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by luke923 ( 778953 )

      Copyright law states that a copyright lasts up to 75 years after the author's death. Supes has got a while.

    • Even if superman was public domain that would only allow you to reprint the various stories already published. Writing new superman stories as long as DC is still publishing and actively protecting its trade marks is not possible with out licensing. This is different then Connan becoming public domain, because as far as I know no new cannon works had come out since the films and the trademarks were long left unprotected. (I'll go make sure of that now..)

      • Nope, I'm apparently wrong. Dark Horse makes a line of comics that has been under publication. Its possible though that they never licensed it, but if they did from wiki comes this information

        "The name Conan and the names of Robert E. Howard's other principal characters are claimed as trademarked by Paradox Entertainment of Stockholm, Sweden, through its US subsidiary Paradox Entertainment Inc.[citation needed] Paradox copyrights stories written by other authors under license from Conan Properties Inc.[cit

    • Because corporate-owned copyrights last for 95-120 years after creation/publication, which puts Superman in the public domain in 2033 at the very earliest and 2058 at the latest, provided copyright extension isn't granted again (which it surely will be by the end of the decade due to Disney). If his copyright was still owned by Shuster and Siegel it would continue for 70 years after their deaths, which were 1992 and 1996 respectively, putting his entry into PD in 2066.

      And yes, it's fucking retarded.

    • Because copyright terms have changed over the years []. For a work published in 1938 whose copyright was renewed (as was necessary then, and we'll assume occurred), it doesn't enter public domain until 95 years later: 2033.

      This would only apply to the character itself (which may also be a trademark, which falls under different rules), and the first stories about that character. More recent stories and characters would have even later expiration dates.

  • I guess when offering Warner their 50%, this was against compensation.

    If Warner paid and the heirs accepted the money (or whatever the compensation consisted of), I don't see how they could then claim to still have any rights. If you want to keep something, don't sell it.

    If they asked for compensation and Warner didn't pay anything, I can't see how they could own the rights.

    And if the heirs didn't demand compensation for transferring their rights, well, they just pay the price for their stupidity.

    • And if the heirs didn't demand compensation for transferring their rights, well, they just pay the price for their stupidity.

      I know it goes against Slashdot standards, but a lot of pointless, wasteful speculation could be avoided by all if people would read the stories before engaging their knee jerks.

      Yes, all important questions are answered in the story.

      • by Leuf ( 918654 )
        The important question TFA didn't answer for me is what happened in between the letter and a reasonable time period afterwards when the contract would have been finalized?
  • Grimly Amusing (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    " ...the families of both creators have been paid in excess of $4m since 1978." So each "family" has received $2 million over the past 35 years? That comes out to a little over $57k a year. Meanwhile, movie grosses alone for the same time period were claimed to be $500 million. So the creators got less than 1% between the two of them, and we're not even talking merchandising. Fuck you, Warner Brothers.

    • by cdrguru ( 88047 )

      The problem is for the families of the original creators that they evidently structured a deal based on getting paid right now rather than some kind of residuals deal. A residuals deal might have turned out badly - if the movies flopped - and wouldn't have been instant cash either. But, if the studio made $500 million they could have gotten a much bigger chunk.

      Studios, and just about everyone else in the businss world, hates risk. Let's say you develop a game and want to sell it to EA and they want to bu

    • If the tables were turned we'd just be saying "Fuck you, Schusters!" It'd be tough to justify paying these people hundreds of millions of dollars for something their dead grandfather created, and to which they'd contributed no work or creative input to in decades.

      We have an historical example of a media franchise owned solely by the original creator, it's called Star Wars, and the results have been rather mixed.

  • by Dutchmaan ( 442553 ) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @06:04PM (#42577113) Homepage
    If only Lex Luthor had made his chains from Copyright instead of Kryptonite!

MESSAGE ACKNOWLEDGED -- The Pershing II missiles have been launched.