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"Do you really think the families of Superman’s creators should be treated this way?"

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Joanne Siegel, widow of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and the model for Lois Lane, died on February 12th at age 93 after spending most of her adult life helping her husband fight legal battles to get adequately compensated for creating the first and best known superhero of them all.

Before she died, she wrote a letter to Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes, asking for some civility. Nikki Finke has printed this letter and we’re taking the liberty of reprinting it because the topic is so germane to the matters we cover here.

Just as a reminder, Siegel is correct — the Siegels have successfully recaptured their share of the Superman copyright effective in 1999; Joe Shuster’s heirs will recapture theirs in 2013. All this legal wrangling by Warner is an attempt to simply wear out the families — in the case of Joanne Siegel, they succeeded.

December 10, 2010
Jeffrey L. Bewkes 
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer 
Time Warner Inc.

Dear Jeff,

I am Joanne Siegel widow of Jerry Siegel, creator of Superboy and co-creator of Superman with Joe Shuster. It has always been my policy to be in touch with the Chairmen of the Board of your company going back to when Steve Ross formed Warner Communications.

Steve Ross knew how to take care of large vexing problems. He paid the price, whatever it was, then went on, and the company prospered. He was gracious and friendly when my late husband Jerry and I met him at a stockholders meeting after he sent Jerry, Joe, my daughter Laura and me company stock. He also phoned me to say if we needed anything I should just pick up the phone and call him. He said if he could not be reached for some reason, one of the top officers in the company, Deane Johnson, would handle things personally. Laura and I believe if Steve were alive our copyright ownership matter would have been successfully resolved long ago.

Jerry Levin was also reachable and thoughtful. He sent my husband and later me, cases of grapefruit at the holiday season. He remembered Jerry’s birthday with a Superman sculpture. When my Jerry passed away, Jerry Levin told Laura and me that we are part of the Time Warner family, part of its history. Unfortunately he retired before our rights issues were resolved. He had given his attorneys too much power so that negotiations were unsatisfactory and a settlement was impossible. Dick Parsons, on the other hand, was not friendly and, under him, the attorneys hired by the company were arrogant and pro-litigation.

Now you are Chairman and CEO. Because we are in litigation I held off writing to you. I now believe had we had contact early on, things might not have gone so far off track.

My daughter Laura and I, as well as the Shuster estate, have done nothing more than exercise our rights under the Copyright Act. Yet, your company has chosen to sue us and our long-time attorney for protecting our rights.

On December 1st I turned 93. I am old enough to be your mother. I have grown grandchildren. Unfortunately I am not in the best of health. My cardiologist provided a letter to your attorneys informing them that I suffer from a serious heart condition and that forcing me to go through yet another stressful deposition could put me in danger of a heart attack or stroke. I am also on medications that have side effects which force me to stay close to home and restrooms. Nonetheless your attorneys are forcing me to endure a second deposition even though I have already undergone a deposition for a full day in this matter. As clearly they would be covering the same ground, their intention is to harass me.

My dear daughter Laura too has painful medical conditions including multiple sclerosis, arthritis, glaucoma, spine disorders, and fibromyalgia. She has already had her deposition taken twice by your attorneys while in pain. Her doctors have given written statements saying she should not be subjected to a third deposition, yet your attorneys are insisting on re-taking her deposition in an effort to harass her as well.

So I ask you to please consider – do these mean spirited tactics meet with your approval? Do you really think the families of Superman’s creators should be treated this way?

As you know, DC and Warner Bros. have profited enormously from 72 years of exploiting Jerry and Joe’s wonderful creation. Superman is now a billion dollar franchise and has been DC’s flagship property for all this time.

As for this letter, the purpose is three-fold:

To protest harassment of us that will gain you nothing but bad blood and a continued fight.

To protest harassment of our attorney by falsely accusing him of improper conduct in an attempt to deprive us of legal counsel.

To make you aware that in reality this is a business matter and that continuing with litigation for many more years will only benefit your attorneys.

This is not just another case. The public and press are interested in Superman and us and are aware of our and your litigations.

The solution to saving time, trouble, and expense is a change of viewpoint. Laura and I are legally owed our share of Superman profits since 1999. By paying the owed bill in full, as you pay other business bills, it would be handled as a business matter, instead of a lawsuit going into its 5th year.

Even though you will no doubt pass this letter on to your attorneys, the final decision is yours. Your image as well as the company’s reputation rests on a respectable and acceptable outcome, and I hope you will get personally involved to insure this matter is handled properly.

The courtesy of a friendly and meaningful reply from you will be most appreciated.

Sincerely,
Joanne Siegel

  1. The real question should be asked by modern day creators: am I so weak that I have to work for these people?

    and /or:

    If I let them do it to somebody else, will they do it to me?

    …Of course they will / LOL

  2. It’s not really a question on how someone should be treated, or even what’s right or wrong, but what’s acceptable under the law. It’s the law that allows someone like Joanne Siegel to claim compensation for creative work she did not do. It’s also the law that allows Time Warner to drag this whole thing out.

  3. Rick, I disagree on the nature of the law. The law is like war, it is a last ditch effort to solve a problem. Better men find ways to avoid it and the objective inhumanity it forces us to embrace in its execution.

  4. William, the law isn’t anything like war. War is it’s own thing, thankfully unlike anything else. The law is just a set of rules we as a civilized people enact that helps govern how we conduct ourselves with each other.

    My point was that the only thing that enabled Joanne Siegel to claim compensation for work she did not do was because the law allowed it. The same can be said for how Time Warner is handling this whole issue. Because the law allows it.

  5. Rick, you may not mean anything by it, and if I’m reading in a tone you didn’t intend, my apologies in advance. But describing Joanne Siegel as trying “to claim compensation for creative work she did not do…” just sounds kind of mean, as if she’s a freeloader looking for a free lunch.

    I think that copyright extension can sometimes be taken to ludicrous lengths (the Joyce estate is a good example of that) but I also think that most creators (with a few notable exceptions) would want proceeds from their work to support their families.

    If you didn’t mean your words to be read as a veiled criticism of Joanne Siegel, it might be my reading. It just seems unnecessarily mean to paint a dead woman with words that ascribe a negative value “work she did not do” rather than positive ones, “work her husband did do.”

    Of course, ultimately, I’m the dummy asking the internet to be nice!

  6. Rick, legal and moral are not the same thing. If you read Joanne’s letter, you’ll see that that’s her point. She commends previous Time Warner Board Chair Steve Ross and CEO Jerry Levin for negotiating and maintaining lines of communication.

    Any good lawyer will tell you that just because you can go to court doesn’t mean you should.

  7. I think pretty much every creator can attest their Significant Other often works every bit as hard as the creator on a particular project or property, albiet in a different way than the creator.

  8. Grady, my intention was not to be mean, but to point out a fact. She didn’t create the work in question. Now if the law allows her to claim compensation for work her husband did years ago, then good for her. With that said, the law also allowed Time Warner to drag their collective feet on this whole mess.

    The law goes both ways.

  9. After reading the article and then the comments I have come to the conclusion that Rick has nothing valuable to contribute.

  10. Rick, the law also allows for people who do create things — art or business — to arrange for that thing to continue to provide for their families after they are dead. In fact most creative people put providing for their families — feeding the kids buying a house — as a significant motivation for their activities. Read any interview with Jack Kirby.

    Jerry Siegel spent much of his life attempting to provide for his family. Perhaps if various corporate entities over the past 70 years had arranged for that in a more equitable fashion the law would not now be called into play.

  11. Copyright should be like a house. As long as the family wants to hold on to it it is theirs. If the grand children want to sell it off after you are dead, that’s their decision. You just try and do your best for your family.

    They deserve to get compensation for what their father/grandfather established all those years ago. Moreso than the company reaping huge profits off it now.

    The law is on their side. Good luck to them.

  12. “She didn’t create the work in question.”

    While that statement is true, then so is this statement:
    “Time-Warner didn’t create the work in question.”

    If there was true justice, when it comes to creative work, the creative artists would receive the bulk of and higher percentage of the profits brought in by their work while agents, corporations, etc… who did NONE of the creative work, would receive the much smaller take.

    But as we see in this world, the law is not always just.

  13. This sounds like Joanne was trying to talk Warner Bros. into doing the “right thing” versus the “legal thing.” I once thought of this as the Siegel family trying to make a buck off work they didn’t do. That was before I got older, got marries, and had some small measure of success as an illustrator. Now, I understand.

  14. Even when points are disagreed upon in this thread, it’s remained incredibly civil. Kudos to everyone posting here for keeping things intelligent, factual, and level-headed. If only every forum was like this.

  15. There’s also a question of how many millions Warner Brothers are paying lawyers and how many millions Siegel family is paying to defend themselves. Long drawn out cases like this always seem to be that the lawyers gain more than anyone else involved.

  16. Warners could easily have paid the Siegels and Shusters what they are paying the lawyers and everyone would have been happier.

    Alas, the rich protect the rich.

  17. “She didn’t create the work in question.”

    While that statement is true, then so is this statement:
    “Time-Warner didn’t create the work in question.”

    —————-

    So it seems with no legitimate living creator the work should go into the public domain.

    These eternal copyrights annoy me, the dead should have no rights.

  18. Nathan Crissman said: “After reading the article and then the comments I have come to the conclusion that Rick has nothing valuable to contribute.”

    ——-

    At least Rick doesn’t come across as a psuedoitellectual preferring to haughtily dismiss others’ opinions rather than describing and justifying his own.

  19. I sure hope these people had some modicum of happiness in their lives outside of these endless legal battles. I’d love to see a bio that shows that to be true in some way and that they had more in their lives than just this.

    I mean, I’m glad they’re still fighting the good fight against Warners and I wish them all the best, but one can’t help but think that, righteous battles for compensation aside, they would have been much better off just letting go way back when they first sold the rights for 50 bucks or whatever it was.

  20. The assertion that Joanne Siegel “didn’t do the work” is actually not quite accurate. As prior evidence and stories have testified, she was the model that was used as inspiration for the character of Lois Lane, who is a key part of Superman’s mythos. One could say that Lois Lane was originally inspired by Joanne’s likeness, and that acting as an artist’s model is work; I should know, as that was how my own mother paid the bills in the 90’s. Well, Lois Lane is a character who has appeared in film, in animation, starred in her own comic books for decades, and even been immortalized in action figures. As the artistic inspiration for the character, Joanne isn’t entitled to fight for her copyright?

    Engaging in lengthy legal litigation to ware out smaller people is old hat for DC; that was how they got Capt. Marvel from Fawcett Comics after all. DC never actually won their legal battles claiming that Capt. Marvel was a riff of Superman; but they kept engaging in so many lawsuits that the legal battles bled the company dry.

  21. As an add on, let us remember Bill Finger, who by all rights co-created virtually everything we know about Batman alongside Bob Kane, who died penniless and under appreciated. To this day, only Bob Kane is credited in Batman media.

  22. Rick,

    Enjoy being a cold, logical, letter of the law robot. I’m sure it brings you a lot of what we humans call “joy”.

  23. Rick,

    Enjoy being a cold, logical, letter of the law robot. I’m sure it brings you a lot of what we humans call “joy”.

    Really can’t understand this. So, being levelheaded and logical when making your point on the Internet is a bad thing? When did this happen?

  24. “So it seems with no legitimate living creator the work should go into the public domain.

    These eternal copyrights annoy me, the dead should have no rights.”

    It’s usually the companies that “own” the characters that hold on to these, not the families. It a lot of ways, this is more about them getting monies they should have gotten long ago, not controlling the characters for the future.

  25. Siegel and Schuster sold their property, didn’t they? They sold it, and now someone else owns it. It wasn’t stolen or appropriated was it? Maybe I’m missing part of the story here, where they were swindled, but if not, how is Time Warner the bad guys, except for possibly their legal tactics?

    Real Estate and stocks are sold all the time, many times the person who buys it makes a huge windfall over time, but many times they don’t. Isn’t intelectual property the same?

    All said, Superman is an exceptional case of one side making a ridiculous profit and the other side winding up with nothing. Surely, Time Warner could make a settlement and be done with it. It’s really nickels to Time Warner and some dignity for the Siegels. The more it drags out, the more it makes them look Disney and the Winnie The Pooh case.

  26. The vast majority of working people are paid for ongoing work, not for work they have done once. The architect who designs a house doesn’t collect rent from the people who live there. The engineer who designs a bridge doesn’t collect tolls from the people who ride on it. I don’t know why it is that people who produce artistic works, in this case both Siegel and Time Warner, feel entitled to forever make money from something created long ago. At least Time Warner has been producing new work based on the character, so they’re marginally more justified.

  27. Luckily, Hymen, evolved governments do not feel as you do and have created trademark and copyright to encourage creativity and innovation by making it more lucrative.

    Of course, the internet has reversed that completely, but them’s the breaks.

  28. >> Siegel and Schuster sold their property, didn’t they? They sold it, and now someone else owns it.>>

    They sold it for the period of copyright, after which it was expected to go into the public domain. Congress, however, has made the period of copyright last longer, which means that under revised law, the buyer’s suddenly getting a better deal than either seller or buyer thought they would. Which was considered an unfair and one-sided benefit.

    So Congress’s solution to that was to say that for older works like this, once the copyright period that everyone expected to be the entire length of the deal is over, creators can revert the ownership back. That way, the buyer gets everything they paid for when they bought the property, and then the creator can have it back.

    >> It wasn’t stolen or appropriated was it? >>

    No one in the case is saying it was. DC has owned Superman for the entire period they originally bargained for — and longer — and made phenomenal profits during that time.

    The creators’ families are not contesting DC’s right to do that. What they want is their share of profits from the post-reversion period, which DC doesn’t want to pay.

    That’s not a claim of fraud or appropriation.

    >> Maybe I’m missing part of the story here, where they were swindled,>>

    Then it might be a good idea to check into it a little, rather than assuming that you can know the whole story based on guesswork. This is a copyright-reversion case, where the creators’ families have completely legally filed for reversion, and DC is suing to try to prevent having to pay anything out. It’s not a fraud case.

    >> Real Estate and stocks are sold all the time, many times the person who buys it makes a huge windfall over time, but many times they don’t. Isn’t intelectual property the same? >>

    No.

    If you think it is, then you may be interested in reading up on the purposes of copyright, trademark and patent, which are all forms of intellectual property law that differ widely from real estate and securities. They differ widely from each other, too, because they cover different things and are shaped by different needs.

  29. >> one can’t help but think that, righteous battles for compensation aside, they would have been much better off just letting go way back when they first sold the rights for 50 bucks or whatever it was.>>

    No, they really wouldn’t. They’d have died in poverty.

    The idea of “Why not just walk away and let large corporations have everything because it’s unseemly to fight for your legal rights” is an odd one, but the idea that you’d be better off doing so is just absurd.

    Even the fights the Superman creators have been through so far have made them better off than if they’d have just walked away. Nowhere near as well off as they deserve, or as well-off as the legal, ordinary, Congress-provided process of copyright reversion should make them, but better nonetheless.

  30. >> There’s also a question of how many millions Warner Brothers are paying lawyers and how many millions Siegel family is paying to defend themselves.>>

    I’d be reasonably certain that the Siegels’ lawyers are doing this on a contingency basis (they get paid out of any moneys won), and not on an hourly basis. The Siegels don’t have anywhere near enough money for that.

  31. I do not know the personal situations of these families…so I was just curious if anyone knows….does Shuster have heirs that are likely to step forward to reclaim their portion of the character? The article mentions that they could do so in 2013…but does anyone know if any eligible heirs exist and, if so, are the expected to take such action? Of course, i could certainly if they exist, but have just chosen to stay out of the spotlight for the time being.

  32. >> does Shuster have heirs that are likely to step forward to reclaim their portion of the character? >>

    The Shuster Estate has already filed.

    There are apparently things about it lawyers can fight over — at the time Shuster died, the law only provided for a spouse or child to count as an heir, and since then the law’s been changed, which is the basis Shuster’s estate has filed on — but there’s an estate, through a nephew of Joe’s, and they’ve filed for reversion, to take place in 2013.

  33. I know I’ll sound pretty ignorant here, but if the Siegel’s have successfuly recovered their copyright at this point, what exactly does their copyright cover? Meaning, the character Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created differs in many ways in appearance from the modern Superman, and some elements of the character’s origin were added later. So does that mean that their copyright is limited to Superman as he appeared in 1938 and things like the name Clark Kent, the planet Krypton, (which I realize are some of the most important elements of the character) but doesn’t cover his more modern physical appearance and later details added to his origin? Or is there still alot of grey area there as to what is covered? Also, is the trademark to the title “Superman” something thats will stay with WB/DC as long as they use it?

  34. Mike —

    Derivative copyrights are included, so no, it doesn’t just include the material in that first story. But as a suggestion: You’re on the internet, and you can hunt out lots of detailed discussion of the case. If you’re interested, I’d recommend it.

    You can start here:

    http://www.cov.com/files/Publication/4b930a26-b5a7-4fea-a8d2-11b0ede52d3c/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/b8ce30f5-f256-4ba2-8cd8-de8ac501e895/Heirs'%20Claim%20is%20Kryptonite%20to%20DC%20Comics.pdf

    …but look around, there’s lots more.

  35. Here’s a question… currently, the copyright is split between DC and the Siegel Estate, right? Which means that both owners can exploit their share, so long as they share 50% of the profits with the other holder.

    Now, what happens in 2013, when the Shuster Estate regains their half?

    Especially if TimeWarner has been litigating the heck out of both estates? Will the Estates allow TW to license the character? Or will they take it to another publisher which is more amenable?

    Seems to me that TW should be playing nice and build up some Good Will.

  36. @Mr. Busiek,

    “The idea of “Why not just walk away and let large corporations have everything because it’s unseemly to fight for your legal rights” is an odd one, but the idea that you’d be better off doing so is just absurd.”

    That wasn’t my point at all. I believe I said their fight was a righteous one. And I never said that fighting for your legal rights was unseemly, you pompous ass.

    The point was that I hope during this horrible legal battle they were able to carve out some happiness because it looks like their lives were a constant battle and life during battle, even when on the just side of that battle, can hardly be a happy one, can it?

    I’m sure to you, not having been through what they’ve been through it’s much more of a black and white issue. As a woman who actually cares about people, I have the pleasure of caring and hoping that their lives were happy in spite of it all and, unlike you, not just caring that David beats Goliath. There’s clearly more to it than that and it’s incredibly sad that you can’t see that.

  37. >> That wasn’t my point at all. I believe I said their fight was a righteous one. And I never said that fighting for your legal rights was unseemly, you pompous ass.>>

    You said they’d have been better off walking away back in 1938. Doesn’t matter if you think their fight is righteous or not if you don’t think they should have fought it.

    >> The point was that I hope during this horrible legal battle they were able to carve out some happiness because it looks like their lives were a constant battle and life during battle, even when on the just side of that battle, can hardly be a happy one, can it? >>

    You’re getting your idea of what this “looks like” from articles about their struggle, which for obvious reasons focus on the struggle. Those articles aren’t trying to be a balanced portrait.

    >> I’m sure to you, not having been through what they’ve been through it’s much more of a black and white issue.>>

    Really? I guess we can assume you’ve been through what they have, or else you’d be as blind as you’ve determined I am, hm?

    >> As a woman who actually cares about people, I have the pleasure of caring and hoping that their lives were happy in spite of it all and, unlike you, not just caring that David beats Goliath.>>

    It’s good that you actually care about people and sad that no one who doesn’t agree with you does, I suppose.

    >> There’s clearly more to it than that and it’s incredibly sad that you can’t see that.>>

    I’m sorry you’re saddened by your imagining that you understand what I can and can’t see. I think you’re wrong in that assumption, though, and I still think they’re better off to have fought rather than walked away in 1938.

    Your having the pleasure of caring about them aside, I don’t think that would have made them a bit happier.

  38. @Mr. Busiek:

    “You said they’d have been better off walking away back in 1938. Doesn’t matter if you think their fight is righteous or not if you don’t think they should have fought it.”

    Having read your posts on this site, I know you have a pathological need to prove yourself right about everything. This being the internet and a free country, it’s your prerogative to do so if that’s what it takes to make you feel good about yourself. But please don’t do it by misrepresenting what I said. I simply wondered….wondered if they would have been happier not having to deal with a decades long legal battle.

    Now, feel free to blather on about what you perceive to be my intent or motive with regards to my “hoping someone was happy”. To be clear, that was the gist of my original message and clearly obvious to anyone not looking to misrepresent and mock to kill time. You must be so proud.

    In order not to antagonize you further, I promise never to hope someone is happy on a blog that you frequent. If you’re lucky, perhaps someone else will come by and wish someone happiness. You can lay in wait and happily attack them to your hearts desire.

  39. >> But please don’t do it by misrepresenting what I said.>>

    I didn’t. Your post is still up there to be read.

    >> I simply wondered….wondered if they would have been happier not having to deal with a decades long legal battle.>>

    Not quite, no. You said “one can’t help but think that, righteous battles for compensation aside, they would have been much better off just letting go way back when.” But even there, all I did was say no, they wouldn’t have been “much better off” if they’d simply walked away.

    >> In order not to antagonize you further, I promise never to hope someone is happy on a blog that you frequent. If you’re lucky, perhaps someone else will come by and wish someone happiness. You can lay in wait and happily attack them to your hearts desire.>>

    If you think pointing out that Superman’s creators wouldn’t have been much better off walking away from their creation in 1938 is an attack, we seem to have a different opinion as to what constitutes disagreement and what constitutes an attack.

    As for blathering on about perceived intent and motive, I haven’t so far called anyone a pompous ass, pathological, incapable of understanding what they’re not going through, uncaring about people but only about David beating Goliath, posting only to feel good about himself and antagonized by anyone hoping anyone else is happy. So I’ll forgo any speculation about which side of all that would be the attack, and just stick with my initial point:

    No, I don’t remotely think Superman’s creators would have been “much better off” if they’d walked away in 1938.

    Monstrous, unacceptable sentiment though it may be, I’ll stick with it.

  40. Time Warner apparently controls derivative works based on Superman and will continue to do so:

    Termination of copyright transfer under Section 304 does not affect derivative works created during the period of the grant. [. . .] This means that no accounting is owed to the estates of Siegel and Shuster for past or future profits generated by derivative works created during the grant period. Rights in works such as the 1950s television series, the Christopher Reeve movies, and all the comics and cartoon programs created during the grant period do not revert to the estates of Siegel and Shuster under this provision. These works are protected by separate copyrights which Time Warner will retain until they expire. They will therefore not enter the public domain in 2033 along with the Superman character.

    Time Warner’s ownership of trademarks is also important:

    Apart from copyright, trademark law enhances the ability of Time Warner to prevent competitors from producing Superman related products and could significantly limit the options of the estates of Siegel and Shuster to go into business with a competing company.

    The Siegel and Shuster estates will have to work with Time Warner for the foreseeable future.

    SRS

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