Brian Cronin does an excellent job of explaining the very odd legal situation that DC Comics has found itself in over the copyright to the Superboy character.
DC owns the copyrights and trademarks to Superman, Clark Kent and the other characters created and derived from Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster’s famous creation.
But a funny thing happened to Superboy — in 1976 the U.S. Congress extended the term of copyrights from 28 years to 47 years. It also made provisions so that copyright transfers originally made for 28 years could be cancelled after that period and the additional 19 years could revert to the original owner.
Suppose, for example, that you created a character in 1948 and transferred the copyright for what then would have been 28 years — i.e., the copyright would have expired in 1976. Under the new provision, you could file to regain the copyright in 1976 and decide who to sell the remaining 19 years of copyright protection to.
In 1947, a judge ruled that Jerry Siegel was the sole owner of Superboy, who had first appeared in comics in 1943. In 1948, Siegel and Shuster signed away all their Superman-related rights, including Superboy, to DC for $100,000.
In 2002, however, citing the provisions of the 1976 copyright provision, Siegel’s estate informed Time Warner, which owns DC, that it was reclaiming its right to Superboy.
Unfortunately for DC, it now has a hit show called Smallville which focuses on a young Superman. What a trial court will now have to decide is whether or not Smallville is a series about Superboy, as the Siegel estate contends, or a young Clark Kent, as DC and Time Warner contend.
And the situation is even more complex, since DC and Time Warner are the sole owners to the Superboy trademark, meaning no one could market Superboy-related comics or other media without DC’s approval.
What a weird mess, and frankly one that DC deserves given the shabby way it treated Siegel and Shuster for creating characters that made the company literally hundreds of millions of dollars.
Judge Says Siegels Own Superboy. Will It Affect “Smallville”. Brian Cronin, ComicBookResources.Com, April 6, 2006.