The comic-book industry was agog at the news last week of Jerry Siegel’s family’s success in its legal fight to regain some copyright control over Superman and some contents of the classic Action Comics #1. Others have commented at length about the decision and what it means for comics, so there’s really no need for me to repeat what’s been stated eloquently (or in the case of some message-board posters, rudely and ignorantly). Besides, the story is far from over. It’s highly doubtful that Time Warner would capitulate in a battle over such a lucrative cash cow from distant Krypton. An appeal is no doubt in the works, regardless of whether or not the appellants have a spandex-clad leg to stand on.
The Siegel ruling is certainly historic for the world of comics, and it may be an important precedent beyond our little corner of pop culture. While creators’ rights have been a topic of discussion for industry insiders and enthusiasts of our little medium for a couple of decades now at least, it’s a notion that’s perhaps never been more prominent in the collective consciousness of Western culture. It was only a few months ago that the Writers Guild of America strike came to end, and that job action impacted just about every household in North America. It wasn’t in any real way that matters, but the public became away of creator rights as a broader principle.
The Siegel lawsuit essentially stemmed from the notion that in the 1930s, there was no way for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (or National Periodical Publications) to imagine how far Superman could go. They probably never expected him to launch into his own title and several more beyond that. In that time, the concept of merchandising was in its infancy. The financial bonanzas of film and TV adaptations were inconceivable.
The same held true for newspapers when it inked agreements with staff journalists and freelancers years ago, never imagining that there would be a demand for an immediate turnaround for copy for its websites, and authors didn’t write or negotiate with any thought toward books on tape/CD. TV and movie writers couldn’t have predicted a world of home theatres and DVD extras. Recording company executives and musicians couldn’t have factored Napster and iTunes into their equations and contracts in the past, just as publishers and creators, just a few years ago, didn’t deign to dream about the demand for digital comics.
New media and methods of communication bring with them new challenges and new opportunities, just as they highlight our own narrow visions and shortfalls in the agreements made about the material that’s disseminated in new directions.
The Siegel ruling is dramatic and intriguing, but that such a development occurred shouldn’t be surprising. Just as life itself and culture evolve, just as technology progresses, so do our laws and our principles. We live in an age when the accomplishments and embarrassments of the individual are as readily accessible to the masses as the governmental decisions and disasters.
There have been some short-sighted industry observers who have thrown around accusations of personal greed. The usually quiet voice of optimism in the back of my head leads me to believe this is a minority, a group of people who fear the loss of something they love because of a lack of understanding of the future ramifications of the ruling.
Just as the Siegels have been demonized by a select few, their supporters have cast Time Warner as the villain in their version of the story. I don’t see this as being entirely justified, though much more understandable from an ethical point of view. A vigorous legal defence of property — be it concrete or abstract — is a logical and perfectly reasonable stance for a corporate entity. Yes, it’s one that threatens to ignore the contributions of the individual. One could easily argue it would be in a business’s or organization’s best interests to pamper and capitulate to the needs and desires of people who have demonstrated they are assets. In the David-versus-Goliath scaffold that serves as the bones of the Siegel story, though, that’s not a realistic expectation.
It seems to be a natural inclination of those making the decisions at a corporate level to consider bottom lines over bosom buddies. Take Todd McFarlane, for example. He and a group of fellow Marvel artists struck out on their own in the name of creators’ rights and a greater share of the profits for the talent when they established Image Comics in 1992. A few years later, McFarlane was at the helm of a bustling business machine that told Neil Gaiman, creator of Angela and other Spawn-related characters, to bugger off.
However, those who might be drawing horns on pictures of Time-Warner execs and lawyers also ought to remember that there have been some smaller measures taken to recognize the importance of talent. Jerry Robinson, a creator vital to the crafting of the Batman mythos, was recently handed a new position with DC Comics, and we’ve seen publisher support for the Hero Initiative, a charity that endeavors to support comics creators in need.
Reactions to the news of the Siegel ruling are natural. Those reactions — on either side of the debate — ought not be extreme ones. After all, similar debates about creator rights and corporate interests are on the horizon. Someone’s bound to make waves over new revenues arising from digital comics distribution, after all.