Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Who Owns Superman?

There's a legal battle being fought for the copyright to Superman, and there's a concomitant internet debate about who should have the copyright.

Here's a basic statment of the issue. here's another.

This writer thinks a Superman in the public domain is a good thing, for "culture." He continues his argument here, the foundation of which can be summed up as follows:

Creative endeavours ultimately are the property of the commons, the public.

A great many things are wrong with that sentence. But, moving on...

There's no new information in this article, but the title is telling: "Writing and Ownership, Why Superman has Abandoned us."

And one final article, which sums up the status of the current legal situation, gives a nice timeline (though it's from Wikipedia, it seems ok), and has a strange prediction: Marvel will publish Superman.

Copyright is currently one of the more compelling issues in folklore. Who owns traditional culture? Who can determine what's done with it? Who gets the money from its display?

There seems to be three opinions to the matter.
1. Superman belongs to Time/Warner, who own DC Comics, who, under a different name, bought the character from Siegel and Shuster in 1938 and have renewed their ownership ever since. This is the corporate stance.
2. Superman belongs to the creators and their heirs, despite having sold the character long ago and being paid the contracted amount. They have tried to regain the character at several time since. This is the creator stance.
3. Superman belongs to everybody. This is the, um, public good stance.

Mark Twain argued in favor of eternal copyright, extending unto the descendants of writers. In his formulation, a business created by an individual could be run in perpetuity by that individuals descendants, so why on earth would the creations of a writer be any different? I'm sure other writers have chimed in on this stuff.

Let's talk about mythology.

If Superman is a myth, then everybody already owns the character. The most recent ruling has to do with the particulars of the origin story, which is perhaps the most often told story of the last century. I'm not talking about just the movies and the comics, but also about public discourse. Think of Obama's joking speech of last year, where he denied being christ but insisted that instead he was rocketed to earth from Krypton. That sort of retelling goes on all the time, in every medium as well as in everday conversation. Telling the story in that manner does not infringe upon copyright, as no one's making money from it. And parody is, of course, protected. Then there's the pastiche, such as Alan Moore's Supreme stories. Or Kurt Busiek's Samaratan. Or about a thousand other comic book characters.

There are academic retellings, there are political retellings, there are comedic retellings. And it's all fine. Thus making the third position both correct and irelevant. Unless somebody wants to publish their own Superman comic, or make their own Superman movie, to turn a profit.

As for positions

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