Two weeks ago, as you probably know, the decades-long legal battle between the Siegel (and by extension, Shuster) families against Time Warner Inc. over who owns Superman came to a kind of, sort of, maybe end. I won’t go over the whole timeline; suffice to say it took a long time. Check Trexler at The Beat (again) to get up to legal speed on the ramifications of the case.
It was a big deal, a landmark case of creator trying to get back his creation. Of course, it was not that simple, but it was painted in those broad cartoon strokes: Clark Kent vs. Lex Luthor, David vs. Goliath, the Starving Artist vs. The MBA/JD Suits. We like mythologizing these things. Almost every website googled up some Superman-court-judicial image (SEARCH: “Superman” “trial”) to accompany their reporting of the progress of the case .
The end ruling came that the Siegels will get an earlier settlement, a very substantial one, but they will not have any ownership of the character, though they will, allegedly, still participate in royalties, which is very owner-like. The Shusters get the settlement they had always had, which is much, much less. No one is talking about that, either.
The Siegels could still try an appeal to the Supreme Court, but people smarter than me say this is remote. But never say never. DC played the long game, some argue, and it worked. Though “worked” is a very relative term: Jerry, Joe, and Joanne Siegel, Jerry’s widow and the model for Lois Lane, died before seeing the end of the case. There’s more to be said there that I just don’t want to imagine. But there may be a longer game at hand. You know the families’ names now. Their story will always be entwined with that of the character, copyright or not. That is a different kind of ownership. And, along with the unprecedented settlement, a substantial sort of victory.
What I don’t get is that this, the big, true news comics story of the last two decades (right?), finally ends — and yes there was coverage everywhere, for maybe a day, but people (fans, creators, punditos) are SILENT AS LORD BOLTAGON. No one is saying anything. Fans too seem apathetic, either mystified by the numbers and legalese or in outright denial.
Has the story passed us by? Is it now a quaint WIkipedia entry from a bygone age? Or has the switch now been flipped on a fully operational Death Star? Corporate comics, post-Avengers and with this decision, seem to be more powerful than ever. Superman began, unequivocally, as the ultimate indie comics creation. But you can see the plus to corporate ownership: DC Comics kept Superman in popular culture for 75 years — this is not an easy task in America. But what does it tell the people who imagine things? What does it tell the kid who just got out his best crayons?
Or is it just that we don’t know which side won? And what that is?
As always, CHINA KNOWS THE ANSWER. In faraway Changzhou, a brand-new amusement park called “Joyland” just opened, dedicated to the monstrously popular World of Warcraft MMORPG. Complete with grim, towering statues and speeding rides, the park cost $48 million to build. According to reports, it is not owned, approved, or sanctioned by Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind WoW. It is completely unauthorized.
And it is already open.
What th-? Why? How? Surely Blizzard knows about it. Photos and video are on Reddit. The photos on Imgur have over 64,418 views. So why is this park still open? Is Blizzard weighing — or have they already — the cost of shutting this thing down against the good PR it gives them among their fans who keep their product sucking bandwidth? Or is this the new model for continued popularity of a colossal IP in the transmedia age? Lucas did it with letting fan films go — + Family Guy, + Robot Chicken — and now everyone’s talking/caring about a new Star Wars film. In the face of tons of vocal nerd backlash, he, in some ways, gave the property back. He let people participate. He let them play.
DC did the same in 1975 with Jerry and Joe when they gave them a settlement even though they had no legal mandate to do so. Could it do the same now in regards to evening out the settlements? DC just settled with a freaking barber shop in Florida over copyright infringement. As you will see in the book, Joe Shuster was ABSOLUTELY the co-creator of the character, not “just the artist.” You will be surprised.
What Joyland perhaps tells us is that now, in the era of big corporate owned entertainment over multiple digital platforms (Blizzard is owned by Vivendi of France) and especially during a recession, the ownership of characters does not mean the control of consumption. Transmedia characters begged to be played with. The toys must be shared. Should that approach include the creators as part of a good business plan? What this means for Superman is unclear: will Time Warner offer an equitable deal to the Shusters? Will both families join with DC to celebrate the character’s 75th anniversary in a united front? Will DC license Superman to Image for a yearlong series by Rick Remender and Paul Pope? Or Hope Larson? Better yet, why would we assume these creators would even want to go near these properties? As with Joyland, is ownership over our giant fictions now a relative term? Or could they do something bigger for the overall problem of character ownership and royalties? Or are we due for more silence, and uncertainty from all sides about the state of the artists in the art.
On Google today, work for hire with the promise of fame:
UPDATED: Jeff Trexler just contributed another great post about what the parties *could* do over at The Beat. It is really hopeful, which is why I love it. But it also again highlights the tremendous cost of this case on the families. My book is unauthorized, but the Siegels and Shusters are good people. Can’t ever say that enough.