Selling Superman: How the Man of Steel’s Creators Lost Him

Today would be the 100th birthday of artist and Superman co-creator Joe Shuster (1914-1992).  Shuster and his friend writer Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) famously sold their rights to the Man of Steel to what later became DC Comics, for the princely sum of $130.  In exchange, they received a ten-year contract to write and illustrate the Superman series of comic books.  For Shuster and Siegel, this would turn out to be one of the biggest blunders in the history of business, akin to Decca records passing on signing The Beatles back in 1961.

Although the story of the sale of Superman is often repeated as a factoid, many are unaware of the legal wranglings that followed, as the pair tried to remedy their mistake.  And well they might rue the day that they had signed over their giant boy scout to the publisher, for Superman has been a huge money-maker for quite a long time.  During World War II for example, Superman comic books were selling at the rate of one million copies a week.  The development of other revenue streams from the character, including radio shows, short and feature-length films, and later the various television series, as well as all kinds of consumer products, continues to pour money into the coffers of DC Comics and their parent company Time-Warner to this day.

Back in 1947, Shuster and Siegel sued National Allied Publications to regain control over their giant offspring, since National Allied now owned not only Superman, but the entire character universe which had been created around him, as well as in the Superboy comics which premiered a few years after the Man of Steel’s debut.  The former group included such familiar figures as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White.  The latter series filled out details of the now-familiar mythology, regarding his relationship with his adoptive parents, Ma and Pa Kent, his growing up in Smallville, and so forth.

This first lawsuit by Superman’s creators was not hugely successful, since the trial judge ruled that National Allied was the legitimate owner of Superman, because Shuster and Siegel had sold him in exchange for valuable consideration.  The parties to the suit eventually entered into a stipulation agreement in 1948, which was approved by the court, in which in exchange for relinquishing any further claims they might make regarding ownership of Superman, the pair agreed to a lump-sum payment of $94,000 – a little under $1 million in today’s dollars – in settlement of their disputes.  And that might have been that, except that Superman the money-making machine showed no signs of stopping, as the decades rolled by.

When Superman’s intellectual property protections were about to go the way of the planet Krypton, Shuster and Siegel decided to try again to assert their rights over the character.  This time, the trigger was the renewal of the copyright to the Man of Steel.  Works created prior to the Copyright Act of 1976 typically had an initial 28-year period of protection from the time of publication, which could later be renewed by the rightful owner.  Superman’s first published appearance in 1939, although Shuster and Siegel had been working on him since their college days in Ohio, meant that he was going to slip into the public domain in 1967, unless that copyright was renewed by his rightful owner.

Shuster and Siegel filed suit in federal district court in New York, alleging that they, and not National Periodical Publications, the successor of National Allied, held the right to seek copyright renewal for their creation, under various theories.  While the pair were ultimately unsuccessful, the court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of National Periodical is a great example of a judge (or his law clerk) having a little fun when writing an opinion. something which during my legal career to date I have only experienced on a few occasions.  In the opening sentence of his ruling, Judge Morris E. Lasker of New York’s Southern District notes one of the key differences between the Man of Steel and the people before him:

Although Clark Kent, generally known as Superman, is happily capable of solving all problems without going to court, his creators and exploiters, mere mortals like the rest of us, are not so fortunate.

Siegel v. National Periodical Publications, Inc., et al.,
364 F.Supp. at 1032 (S.D.N.Y., 1973)

Although part of Judge Lasker’s findings were reversed on appeal the following year, the dismissal itself was ultimately affirmed on other grounds.  In their ruling, like their brother on the bench below, the judges of the 2nd Circuit couldn’t resist injecting some superlatives about Superman into their written opinion.  They described the Last Son of Krypton as “a person of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest,” Siegel v. National Periodical Publications, Inc., et al., 508 F.2d at 909 (2nd. Cir., 1974).  Subsequently the legal wranglings over ownership of Superman have continued, with the heirs of Shuster and Siegel experiencing some more losses and even a minor victory or two.

Aside from these interesting legal citations however, the real lesson to be drawn here is quite simple.  If you really, really believe in your product, whatever that product may be, think very carefully before signing away your rights to it.  In the case of Joe Shuster, although he was able to have a steady job as a comic book artist for a decade, in exchange for relinquishing his big blue and red baby, he later sank into obscurity.  Imagine how different things might have been, had he been willing to haggle just a bit more to retain at least some right of ownership over his very profitable offspring.

Superman comic cover by Joe Shuster (1940)

Superman comic cover by Joe Shuster (1940)

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