Comics / Spotlight

Copyrights and the Superman Reboot

By Hervé St-Louis
July 26, 2011 - 00:01

The new Superman will wear jeans, his powers will be changed. At the same time much of the DC Comics universe will also change. Superman will be from Krypton, but won’t exactly be the Superman we know. Why is DC Comics rebooting all of its universe and Superman in particular? I say it’s copyrights-related. I’m not sure if this has been covered or addressed appropriately elsewhere as I’ve been out of the loop for the last few months – yeah I know, the publisher of a comic book site who’s clueless – happens.

These changes don’t appear to be the kind of changes that would happen normally if there wasn’t a big external cause for them Superman has changed a lot over the years, but the core of the character has never been messed with. So what’s going on? The changes to Superman will cost DC Comics a lot of money and is a great gamble. But perhaps the gamble is worth it if it means DC Comics continues to publish a Superman that is different from the one originally created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the character’s creators.

The estates of the Shuster and Siegel have been awarded copyrights over much of Superman’s original depictions including Superman's origins from the planet Krypton, his parents Jor-El and Lora, Superman as the infant Kal-El, the launching of the infant Superman into space by his parents as Krypton explodes and his landing on Earth in a fiery crash, his costume, his alter-ego as reporter Clark Kent, reporter Lois Lane, their jobs at the Daily Planet newspaper working for a gruff editor, and the love triangle among Clark/Superman and Lois.

The copyrights ruling covers only the United States. DC Comics continues to hold the full copyrights of Superman in other jurisdictions such as Canada and Europe. The trade-mark to Superman continues to be owned by DC Comics which means no one else but DC Comics and its licensors, can sell a product called Superman, legally. This is a complicated mess, but I believe it ultimately explains all the changes we are seeing to Superman and DC Comics.

Although DC Comics claims that it is merely modernizing Superman for a new generation, the 2013 deadline looming upon the publisher, where the Shuster and Siegel estates will fully own all of the early Superman depictions are, in my learned opinion, the real reason Superman is going through such changes. By planting the changes two years in advance, the publisher and Warner Brothers are hoping this new Superman will stick.

On the other hand, the Siegel and Shuster estates will not be able to do much with the Superman crumbs they own or about to own. Their Superman will not be able to fly, will not have a sidekick called Jimmy Olsen and will not have an arch villain named Lex Luthor. The new Superman rebooted by DC Comics seems to be an attempt to lessen the amounts owed in licensing fees to Shuster and Siegel by virtually creating a brand new character called Superman that has minimal ties to the one created by Shuster and Siegel.

I will reiterate the original point I made about this mess nearly two years ago, which earned me the scorn of many in the comic book industry on both sides of the debate, such as Tom Spurgeon and Heidi McDonald. Silly copyrights laws whereby large copyrights owners such as Time Warner and Disney are able to lobby Washington to continually extend the length of copyrights well beyond the 50 years after the creator’s death that is accepted in much of the world has to stop. Copyrights were created to allow the original creator a few years where he could benefit exclusively from his labour and creations. In the original American copyrights laws, they lasted no more than seven years. Then they were extended to 14, and then more and now close to a hundred years. The original intent of copyrights was to allow the rights of an intellectual property to revert back to society as a whole. That means, anyone could write and draw stories about Superman not just DC Comics. This right has been denied by large copyrights owners and has forced politicians to add protections for original creators, such as Shuster and Siegel in response to the ridiculous extension of copyrights to nearly a century.

Meanwhile, the public and culture as a whole does not benefit from the reversion of Superman to the public domain where it can be used as fodder to influence the next generation of creations from budding creators, the same way Shuster and Siegel borrowed heavily from public domain material – the Bible to create a character that is in reality a modern day Moses copy.

Last Updated: March 10, 2022 - 22:00

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