Superman is an icon of comic books, movies and television. He is the quintessential superhero. He represents the pinnacle of human potential. Strong, fast, noble, honest, heroic and virtuous, Superman stands for the very best that we can be despite his humble beginnings. He was orphaned as an infant when his home planet of Krypton was destroyed. He immigrated to earth, and was raised by the Kents, a farming couple in Kansas.
Like the character, his creators, Jerry Siegel and Toronto-born Joe Shuster, came from humble beginnings as well. Shuster worked as a paperboy to help make ends meet for his family during the 1920s. Siegel was the youngest of six children, whose father died when he was a child. Both were born to immigrant families of limited means and faced all of the challenges associated with growing up under those conditions. Somehow, despite the odds, they succeeded in creating one of the most successful literary characters of all time.
Tragically, Siegel and Shuster were never well rewarded for their success. In 1937, they sold 13 pages of Superman work to what is now DC Comics for $130, and signed a release granting DC the rights to the character. A 1940 lawsuit prompted Siegel and Shuster to drop their claims to Superman in exchange for $94,000. Litigation was renewed in the 1970s, resulting in Shuster and Siegel agreeing to accept annual payments of $20,000 in exchange for the rights.
Joe Shuster passed away in 1992. Jerry Siegel died in 1996.
After Jerry's death, his widow, Joanne Siegel, began proceedings on behalf of his estate to have the transfer of copyright to DC terminated under provisions of the US Copyright Act of 1976. At trial, the estate was granted some rights in the Man of Steel. However, this was overturned recently by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which upheld a 2001 agreement between the estate and DC, now part of Time Warner.
A separate 2012 proceeding on behalf of Shuster's estate also ended in favour of Time Warner.
The result is that DC/Time Warner now appears to have exclusive control over Clark Kent and his secret identity, although it is still open to Siegel's estate or Shuster's estate to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Assets like copyrights are often forgotten by will drafters, estate planners and testators when preparing their estate plans. Although largely unsuccessful, the efforts of the representatives of the estates of Shuster and Siegel to enforce their intellectual property should serve as a reminder that these assets can be quite valuable. Time Warner is set to capitalize on the value of Superman this year when it releases "Man of Steel" in movie theatres this summer.
Most individuals will create something in which they will have copyright during their lives. Things like photographs, paintings, poems, songs, recordings and academic writings come with copyrights. Although most of these rights will never become valuable, it may be worthwhile for an estate trustee gathering in assets to consider these, and for will drafters to deal with these rights, so as not to leave their beneficiaries vulnerable to the Lex Luthors of this world who might seek to take advantage.