Among the many thoughtful questions raised in my discussion with the Superman Homepage earlier this week was whether the Siegel lawsuit prompted changes to Superman’s uniform. This might seem like a small issue, but it reflects serious concerns about freedom and integrity in a corporate context.
It wouldn’t be responsible to downplay the importance of corporate attorneys in today’s creative climate–if they conclude that something should or should not be in a company material, it typically will or won’t be there.
Consider what happened in regard to Superboy. In the Siegel litigation, Superboy disappeared after a judge ruled that the character belonged to the Siegels. When a different judge vacated that ruling, the character re-appeared. Although correlation does not necessarily imply causation, in this context it’s reasonable to conclude that Superboy’s disappearance was most likely dictated by the loss of the copyright. His re-appearance — well, the return of the copyright allowed that, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a lawyer would have ordered DC to put Superboy back in a book.
The reason: lawyers for the most part are not there to call story beats. That’s not their job. C-level executives, editorial, writers, artists, marketing–they’re out in front maximizing profit or living their creative dream. Meanwhile, the lawyers are doing what they can to help everyone else make things happen without fueling a lawsuit or going to jail.
What does that mean for red underwear outside of tights?
The answer may vary depending on the personalities involved.
What we know for sure is that DC’s attorneys cited content variations over the course of Superman’s history as evidence of the value of DC’s ongoing creative input. This was part of DC’s argument for reducing the financial impact of the heirs (now all but lost) co-ownership of 50% of the Superman material from Action #1. The lawyers would not have kept the Siegels from getting a payout on this score, but they probably would have succeeded in keeping the Siegels from getting a full 50% of the Superman universe today.
Beyond that, a savvy corporate lawyer reviewing content planned for release–and reviewing content planned for release is part of what today’s corporate lawyers should be doing–couldn’t have helped but spot ways in which new material resonated with the case.
For instance, some time ago an insider told me that a certain writer–who shall remain anonymous–had submitted a story in which the mysterious hand visible at the creation of the DC universe was actually that of Superman. Time Warner attorneys reportedly ordered that part of the story edited out, inasmuch as it could be cited as evidence that DC regarded all of its superhero material to be derivative work based on the Siegel and Shuster character.
A lawyer with the same mindset would likely see apparent connections consistent with the case. There’s a draft New 52 cover with Superboy wearing a black-and-white costume? “Hey,” the lawyer exclaims after hours of tedious flyspecking, “that’s like the black-and-white strongman the judge said we own from the Action #1 promo ads!” Maybe it was just a coincidence; maybe it was the artist playing off of a funky part of the 2008 Siegel ruling. Either way, it’s something to note.
The same goes for the S-shield, which for a while was a central point of contention in the Siegel case. The shield has gone through a number of variations over the course of its history, including the period of time following the lawsuit. It’s questionable whether company attorneys asked for any specific changes after the Siegel filing or 2008 victory, since any savings would be minimal at best. However, the existence of occasional variations could have been cited to substantiate DC’s claim to its own creative contributions in determining how much the now lost Siegel share was worth.
This analysis of Superman material would not be not limited to comics–company lawyers doing their due diligence should look at everything connected to company property. One of DC’s writers, Grant Morrison, writes a chapter in Supergods that says the core DNA of the Superman character is all there on the Action #1 cover? “Wow,” the lawyer says, “that could help us!” Morrison goes on to say that Superman became this emergent character who inevitably transcended Siegel’s control? That could help too! Morrison might not have meant to do so–probably didn’t in fact, given that everything he said flowed naturally from scientific & literary ideas he’s been writing about since the 1990s–but that wouldn’t have stopped a corporate attorney from citing Morrison’s material in the profit-allocation phase of the trial had the Siegels kept their 2008 victory.
[A personal sidenote, in light of certain comments made following my earlier posts on this subject: I happen to agree with Morrison’s understanding of Action #1–and I can assure you that I am not a DC mouthpiece, nor have I had any desire to reduce the Siegels’ share of the property. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes Superman tossing a car is just Superman tossing a car.]
Is it possible that some lawyers might have tried to use the case to micro-manage Superman material? Sure, there are folks who go beyond the pale of what’s required in any number of organizations, and that’s not limited to lawyers. There was an argument to be made that stripping Superman of his shorts or changing the S-shield might have reduced the Siegels’ payout by a few dollars, but would the change have been worth it? At max the Siegels (before last week) would have had 50% of current Superman material, and most likely it would have been less. In that context it would have been much more business-savvy to make whatever choices maximized brand value as opposed to risking greater returns on minimal savings.
Normally, though, the fact that attorneys are trained to take this issue-and-argument-spotting approach to content does not mean that the lawyers are calling all the shots. Creatives change things; companies stay in business by keeping content fresh. This may have given DC’s lawyers some helpful arguments, but it doesn’t mean they were always pulling the strings.
Of course, so far we’ve just been talking about direct creative interference. Rights agreements, litigation strategies, personnel management–their effects are a matter for another post.