If you're concerned that the family of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel regaining part of the copyright to Action Comics #1 means that you're going to be deprived of new Superman comics or episodes of Smallville, then I have good news for you. That's not going to happen anytime soon, as DC Comics still owns half of the character's copyright, and most of the character's mythology. Over at Uncivil Society, lawyer Jeff Trexler has taken the time to make sure that even the legally-stupid like myself understand just what's going on with the battle over the Man of Steel.
In a series of three excellent posts, Trexler explains just what last week's ruling in favor of the Siegel family actually means... and doesn't mean:
Even in regard to the Siegels' interest in Action Comics #1 and works derived from it, the Siegel heirs are at best co-owners with DC (the Shuster situation is explained in brief here). Each holder of copyright interest must account to any others for any profits gained from exploiting the copyright, and no partial copyright holder can transfer exclusive rights without consent of the others holding a copyright interest. In addition, as the court rules (pp. 63-66), under the law the Siegel heirs regain an interest only in domestic—not foreign—profits.
But wait, there's more! A number of elements in the Superman "universe" (see pp. 13-14) did not appear in the first issue of Action Comics. Kryptonite, Lex Luthor, Metropolis, Beppo the Super-Monkey—none of these appear in the issue. Superman could not fly, nor does he have super-breath, heat vision or a Fortress of Solitude with an interplanetary zoo and the Bottle City of Kandor. The extent to which the Siegels' profit distribution will be affected by subsequent additions to the original material is yet unresolved.
The main point Trexler wants to make is that this ruling, if anything, only complicates matters:
The situation gets far more complex when deciding what constitutes a derivative work from Action #1. Given how much of the current character is distinct from the material in that story, the amount that the Siegels should receive from new material (i.e., from April 16, 1999 onward) is open to debate.
Making this more difficult is the relation of the Action Comics #1 material to Superman trademarks. Superman trademarks include elements from the relevant copyrighted material, from aspects of Superman's uniform to certain characters to the logo, which reflects the classic Ira Schnapp design "based on Joe Shuster's concept." This is cutting-edge unresolved intellectual property law, with ramifications far beyond the comic book community. Anyone looking for an easy and immediate answer will, alas, be disappointed... Even if the cases didn't settle and the Shusters prevailed, the termination only applies to domestic U.S. copyright. The retention of trademark and foreign copyright by DC & co., as you can imagine, creates a far more complex situation, as does the fact that so much of the current character does not appear in the Action Comics #1 material. I'm not saying it would be easy, but there are things that Time Warner could do without a license, just as there are opportunities the creators' families couldn't exploit without dealing with Time Warner.
Ultimately, he feels, we should expect a status quo not too dissimilar from the one we have now:
Instead of worrying about DC folding up, expect a settlement with both the Siegel and Shuster families, albeit perhaps one that is more favorable to them in terms of finances and the creators' recognition than might have otherwise been obtained.
Somehow, the fact that the status quo will probably ultimately remain the same seems somewhat fitting when applied to anything to do with Superman, doesn't it?