Thursday, April 03, 2008


Copyright Term and the Public Domain

If you've dipped your toes in the comics blogosphere at any point in the last week, you've doubtless run into the news about the court decision regarding the wife and daughter of Superman creator Jerry Siegel recovering half the copyright on Action Comics #1, published in 1938. If you haven't been following the news, there's no better place to start than with Jeff Trexler's posts, and his subsequent analysis of the issues surrounding the decision for Newsarama.

In his most recent post, he points to this table on the Cornell Copyright Information Center site, which is the most exhaustive summary (if you've forgive the contradiction) of copyright laws and the public domain that I've yet come across. I've spent the last few years trying to educate myself on the laws surrounding the public domain, and kidded myself that I knew a bit about it, but there are wrinkles in here (in particular those about unpublished work) that I'd never come across before.

Not everyone finds endless amusement in the intricacies of intellectual property law, but if you're like me, this last week has been like three Superbowls all at once.

What's the bottom line here. I undestand his estate gets a piece of everything from 1999 onwards or something along those lines, but could we actually see authorized versions of Superman coming out from someone other than Warner/DC?
It's quite a bit more complicated than that, actually. The short answer is that they now co-own the copyright for everything introduced in Action Comics #1, by dint of a clause in the 1976 copyright extension act, wherein the creator or the creator's heirs could petition for the reversion of rights after copyright was extended. It's still to be decided what if any moneys generated (in the US only) by the property since 1999, the year the reversion retroactively became active, are due to the Siegels. And, of course, DC will doubtless be contesting this. But yes, as it stands, if the Siegels wanted to publish their own version of Superman (using *only* those elements introduced in Action Comics #1--so no Lex Luthor, no Jimmy Olsen, no Kryptonite, no flying, etc) they could, but they'd be obliged to pay a portion of the profits to DC, just as DC will be obliged going forward to pay a portion of *their* profits to the Siegels.

Check out Trexler's FAQ for more detail. The questions about trademarks, about what happens in 2013 and 2033, and so on are absolutely fascinating.
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