Funnybook Babylon

March 31, 2008

Is this really Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 10:44 am

The most significant and common error that people make when discussing legal decisions is to apply traditional notions of morality to outcomes. As I’m sure that you all read it, a court recently ruled in favor of the heirs of Jerry Siegel, one of the co-creators of Superman, and granted them co-ownership of the material contained in Action Comics #1. This material includes some of the most recognizable aspects of the Superman mythos. Although this does not include some specific details that have been developed over the decades, the material is the core of the character we all know and love. This decision was a clear victory for the Siegel family, and all those who support creator rights are elated.

Since the Siegels are the victors, and the heroes in the eyes of some, does that mean that DC Comics was the villain? Historically, that may have been true. As Dirk Deppey points out in his most recent column, publishers have never treated creators equitably. Abhay Khosla has referred to this as the ‘original sin’ of the comics industry.

But has DC, in its most recent incarnation, and current management structure, really acted in bad faith? Although their efforts to narrow the scope of the copyrightable material (through their claim that the advertisement gave them the copyright to more than a blurry image, or that the material added to the issue after the original contract was signed rendered the entire issue a work for hire) were a little far-fetched, it’s quite a logical leap to make the claim that DC is evil. They (and their attorneys) are just interpreting copyright law in a light most favorable to them. That’s what every party to a lawsuit does. It’s not very different from the Siegel’s efforts to apportion foreign profits received by DC Comics, which is clearly impermissible under copyright law.

Let’s be clear here: this lawsuit is not about justice, or about horrible decisions that were made seventy years ago, or anyone atoning for sins. It’s about money. The Siegels want a fair accounting of the profits owed since the notice was effective, and both parties want to determine exactly what aspects of the Superman property are subject to the termination notice. In this continuing negotiation, which is taking place through the court system at the moment, the Siegels have won a significant victory, and they deserve it. But this was not a ‘public shaming’ of DC, or an effort to undo the contract signed in 1938. The American Dream is no less or more bright than it was yesterday.


  1. Very well written! I was curious what the FBB take was going to be and I’m glad I got to read it today!

    Comment by Kenny — March 31, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

  2. It’s cool to see that someone isn’t readying the torches and pitchforks, ready for a revolution to depose Despotic Dastardly Dan Didio (who you would think, from reading other takes, is sitting on a mountain of gold coins twirling a black handlebar mustache and cackling with evil glee as he fantasizes about the Schusters and Siegels in rags).

    Comment by Andrew — March 31, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

  3. It’s actually kind of impressive how many people have their mob rage directed at the Siegels and Shusters for daring to take away their beloved Connor Kent, and now (not even possibly) taking away Superman! Superman is an American Treasure, these guys signed stupid contracts because they were stupid, and should just bootstrap themselves up and let us enjoy Final Crisis in peace!

    That’s honestly the extreme opinion I’ve heard more often out of the two.

    Comment by Chris Eckert — April 1, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  4. Chris,

    I think that the extreme fanboy position was the most immediate one, so it was far more prevalent over the weekend. But over the last two days, all of the ‘respectable’ commentators have taken the opposite opinion, in a manner that I think is a bit extreme. Although it is (almost) inarguable that DC was the bad guy when the contract was signed, and that it continued to be the bad guy over the ensuing decades, I don’t think that they’ve demonstrated bad faith during this most recent litigation.

    The other side has taken a pretty reflexive anti-corporate stance that appears to be rooted in their preconcieved opinions about DC Comics. Everyone brings in their favored hobby horse into these debates, whether it’s ‘intellectual property belongs to the audience’, or ‘Lawrence Lessig is right!’, or ‘mainstream publishers are akin to sweatshop owners’.

    There just seems to be a little too much hysteria in the debate as a whole.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — April 1, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

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