Comics / Spotlight

Response To Tom Spurgeon: Copyrights, Superman, and the Estates of Siegel and Shuster

By Hervé St-Louis
August 19, 2009 - 12:20

The editors of The Comic Book Bin have revised the original version published on August 14, 2009 so it adheres to our policies and values  as listed in our About page. Revised by Beth Davies-Stofka.


My recent editorial about Superman and copyright stirred up some surprising emotion over at The Comics Reporter.  Tom Spurgeon invited readers to respond, and I'm going to do that here.

My issue with the battles between DC Comics and the estates of Siegel and Shuster over Superman copyrights concerns the continuous prolongation of copyrights in the United States, which go against the spirit of the public domain’s right.  Copyright law governs the period of time that rights over a creation such as Superman can be maintained before the reversion of the creation to the commons/public domain.  In my opinion, copyright should not persist indefinitely.  It is merely a license to operate and use the benefit from copyrighted material for a limited time.  Creative endeavours ultimately are the property of the commons, the public.  Expiration of copyright is critical if a society's creativity is not to be gutted.  Creators are not gods.  Whatever they create ultimately has to revert to public ownership.  I believe this is the foundation of the laws governing copyright.   As much as we might wish otherwise, copyright laws do not exist to right the wrongs of the past.

In the case of Superman, the character should have become the property of the public and the fans of the character already. Under normal conditions, without the various extensions that have been lobbied for by corporations such as Disney and Warner Brothers, Superman would belong to all of us.  The real argument of Superman: More Copyright Stupidity is a defense of the principle of the public domain and the ridiculous indefinite copyright extensions in the United States.  Right or wrong, the general public couldn’t care less about Superman’s creators.  It only cares about Superman. 

And it's worth repeating that the reversion of copyrighted properties to the public domain is a crucial driver of social and cultural creativity.  Perhaps if comic book creators were more passionate about this, it would influence their own creative process, if not the process by which they market their creations.  Maybe they would establish stronger ties with their readers, who will ultimately own all the creative ideas put forward by this generation and past generations of comic book creators.  I'm advancing the thesis here that the legacy of comic book creators, like all artists, is ultimately to serve the public good, perhaps even help to keep a society be healthy and whole. For example, by allowing Iranian writers Payman and Sina to rewrite the words in her comic book series Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, the award winning creator of the original series allowed political comments on the recent contest of the 2009 Iranian presidential election and the response from the regime to be criticized and reflected with the original 1979 events that led to the current regime in that polity.

The most important group of people in the comic book industry are the readers, the fans, the hardcore or the casual ones.   It seems to me that business-wise, a property shared by three owners is not viable.  I can't even recall the last time I bought a Superman comic book, but perhaps reversion to the public domain is just what the Man of Steel needs.  He's an enormously valuable American icon, and if the public had control of him, the creative flowering might make him interesting again.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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