[NOTE: The following report contains spoilers for “Infinite Crisis” #6.]
According to an article in Variety, a federal judge recently dealt a blow to DC Comics in their current case against Jerry Siegel’s heirs over ownership to Superboy, leaving the legal status of WB’s Smallville in jeopardy.
Variety got hold of the March 23 partial Summary Judgment order by Judge Harold S.W. Lew of the Ninth Circuit District Court, where Lew ruled that Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson, Jerry Siegel’s wife and daughter, respectively, successfully recaptured the Superboy copyright as of November 17, 2004. In addition, Lew made it clear that, in his opinion, the television program “Smallville” (since that date) is infringing upon the copyright of the Siegels. However, Lew did not make a ruling on the “Smallville” issue, leaving it to be determined at a copyright infringement trial.
Time Warner is appealing the ruling on the Siegel’s ownership of the Superboy copyright.
The “Smallville” claim will go towards one simple decision – is “Smallville” a TV show about Superboy, or is it a show about a young Clark Kent? The difference might not seem like much, but what it boils down to is that DC (as of right now, as that is a matter of a separate copyright claim by the Siegels and the executor of Joe Shuster’s estate) owns the copyright to Clark Kent, so if it was determined that “Smallville” is merely a show about a young Clark Kent, then Warner Brothers would be fine. However, if a jury determines that “Smallville” is based upon Superboy (presuming that Lew’s ruling stands up on appeal), then Time Warner would be in quite a difficult position. The position of Time Warner is that a young Clark Kent appeared in the comic well before Superboy was introduced, so a young Clark Kent is a good deal different than “Superboy.” the Siegel’s side, of course, believes that not to be the case, citing the examples that the only “young Clark Kent” before Superboy’s introduction was an infant and toddler, never a teenager, and Judge Lew clearly leans towards the Siegels, stating in a footnote “In the Superboy comic strip, a billboard on the side of a rural country road announces, ‘Welcome to Smallville! Home of Superboy.”
The ruling was based upon changes made in 1976 to the Copyright Act, where the length of copyright renewal was extended from 28 years to 47 years, and allowed that any copyright transfers could be terminated so that the original copyright owner (or his/her heirs) could gain the benefit of those extra 19 years of protection (with the presumption being that it would be unfair to the original copyright owners, as any deals they made before the change were based upon the 28 year duration, not 47).
Please note that this does not affect the current legal situation that the Siegels are in with Warner Brothers over the rights to Superman, which is an entirely separate situation. The current Superboy situation derives from the first legal attempt by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to reclaim their creation, Superman. That came in 1947, and while a judge ruled the next year in favor of DC Comics for the rights to Superman, New York state court Judge Addison Young ruled that Siegel was the sole owner of the separate character, Superboy (who had only recently been introduced in More Fun Comics #101 only four years earlier). Siegel and Shuster signed away all their rights to Superman and Superboy soon after, for about $100, 000.
Therefore, since a judge specifically ruled that Siegel owned Superboy at the time, it is pretty clear (at least in my legal opinion) that the deal made after the 1948 decision was a standard copyright transfer agreement, and that therefore, the Siegels were acting properly when, in 2002, they gave their two-year notice that they were terminating Time Warner’s copyright. This termination went into effect in 2004, which Judge Lew has now confirmed.
The trial (which was filed in 2004, but has not even begun yet) will continue on the “Smallville” matter, and clearly, Time Warner will appeal the Lew summary judgment order. There is still a tricky road ahead for the Siegels and Time Warner, and that is not even getting into the Superman copyright issue, which is a much more convoluted mess.
Finally, as readers of today’s “Infinite Crisis” #6 can attest, DC has suddenly found itself short a character named Superboy. I’m certainly not suggesting that this necessarily has anything to do with the copyright infringement case, but please note that if Conner Kent were to return later, sans any Superboy connection (as in, a brand new name), then DC will have successfully avoided the copyright issue with Superboy. In addition, here’s an even trickier situation – DC currently still owns a trademark on Superboy, so no one can publish a comic using the name Superboy, even if they owned the copyright to the character! Therefore, DC can simply rename Conner Kent something else until the Siegel’s copyright runs out, at which point, they can return Conner (or whatever other character is introduced between now and 2023) to the name Superboy. In addition, as Time Warner has been quite willing to settle the case (in fact, one of their claims in the past involves their insistence that the Siegels already did settle, but decided to break the settlement agreement and therefore, the Siegels should be bound by the terms of the original settlement), this certainly does not hurt Time Warner’s negotiation position. In any event, it will be interesting to see what path this case takes in the future, as it could have a real impact on the comics we read and the TV shows that we watch.