Issues of idea ownership have been on my mind lately, and ta-da , here’s the ongoing Superman copyright battle still in the news to help me articulate my thoughts.
It starts with this: Owning an idea is not like owning a house or a gun or a spoon or anything else you can hold, steal, break, lick or leave a fingerprint upon. Likewise, the laws covering idea ownership are twisty and murky; they are as clear to observers as the view from inside a Turkish bath.
You can have an idea that wakes you in the dead of night, something unique and original and wonderful. That thing is yours, locked away in your head, for as long as you want to own it.
But it has no value there. If you want to get something for it, you’ve got to get it out of your head, and let others see it, and here your troubles begin.
If someone sees your idea, will they steal it? Can you sue to get it back?
If someone helps you improve the idea, should they be rewarded with part of the ownership?
If someone gets your idea out in the market where it can make you money, should they own some of it as well?
If someone makes variations of your idea down the road, do you own part of their creation?
You’d think the creators of Superman, one of the most recognizable icons of the 20th Century, would have gotten rich, rich, rich for their efforts. And of course, they didn’t. Idea-havers never do, do they? (We’re leaving you out of this, J.K. Rowling.)
Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster dealt with their intellectual property issues in an era before “intellectual property issues” were a well-defined topic. So when they wanted to monetize their comic book superhero creation in 1938, they didn’t have a legion of fellow creators or lawyers waving red flags at the contract with Detective Comics that sold the rights to Superman for $130.
A hundred and thirty beans. That’s it, in exchange for some contract work producing the comic — that is, Siegel and Shuster gave away the potential for long-term gains in exchange for the security of some short-term work.
Over the years, courts have upheld this copyright contract in favor of DC, so that Siegel and Shuster got bupkus. (To be fair, DC acknowledged some moral obligation in 1975 by granting Schuster and Siegel an annual $20,000 pension apiece and health care benefits. Which is nice … but clearly, not quite what one would expect to earn for creating one of the reigning icons of all time, eh?)
But copyrights were never intended to last forever. And that’s where it starts to get thorny. Beginning in 1999, the estate of Joel Siegel (who died in 1996) began its battle to reclaim its share of the copyright, and Shuster’s estate followed a few years later. The result? A maddening patchwork of rulings that parse the Original Idea into absurd bits that seem to defy logic. As Variety reports in an Aug. 13 story:
[Siegel’s estate] has “successfully recaptured” rights to … the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.
This means the Siegels … now control depictions of 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.
But not all is lost for DC!
DC owns other elements like Superman’s ability to fly, the term kryptonite, the Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen characters, Superman’s powers and expanded origins.
Really? An idea birthed in the 1930s by a couple of hardscrabble artists has now been diced like sushi and spread into every corner of the bento box. When you own “Superman’s ability to fly” how much do you get when Supes catches some air in someone else’s comic? (Or do you price your commodity so high that Superman has to take the bus?) If the Siegels own exploding Krypton and Superman’s “landing on Earth in a fiery crash,” can DC retcon his story so Kal-El is adopted from the Krypton Super Orphanage and delivered to Smallville by a Cosmic Stork?
My father would call this “a furschluggin mess.”
The lesson, then, is simple: Creators, own your work. Don’t let it go for cheap. In the words of another DC-spawned philosopher: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” (—The Joker, “The Dark Knight”) Unless, that is, you don’t mind having somebody else owning your hero’s right shoe and his ability to pronounce the letter P.
Sure, my fellow creatives, sometimes doing “work for hire” is the only oasis in a wide desert, but if that’s where you choose to drink, be aware — be very aware — that unless you negotiate a nice canteen and some ice, you’ll be just as thirsty tomorrow as you are today.