Warner Bros. recently announced that Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is going to direct a new film version of Superman. The casting rumors have begun, and the studio wants to start filming in June 2011, it’s reported. But it’s only been four years since Superman Returns was generally panned. What’s the big rush?
The flurry of activity is due to ongoing litigation between Warner Bros. (which owns DC Comics) and the heirs of Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Shuster and Siegel sold the Superman rights in 1938 for $130. They’ve been trying to get them back ever since. Although the exact parties have changed over the years (with Shuster’s and Siegel’s heirs eventually on one side and various iterations of Warner Bros. and DC on the other), the question of who-owns-what is still not settled.
In 2008, the United States District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Siegel’s heirs are entitled to partial copyright of Superman’s character (542 F.Supp.2d 1098), but left several other issues unsettled. Shuster’s heirs have also stepped into the fray and after several hiccups, the parties are set to begin discovery. The new Superman film is one way Warner Bros. is trying to minimize economic losses, whatever the outcome of the suit may be.
Superman isn’t the only comic book character to make an appearance in copyright jurisprudence. For example: Snyder’s previous film, Watchmen (based on a graphic novel of the same name), was subject to a fierce lawsuit (630 F.Supp.2d 1140) prior to its release in theatres. And Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane went to court (360 F.3d 644) over characters created for the Spawn series. The judge in that case described one Spawn character as “a kind of malevolent Superman figure, although actually rather weak and stupid” and appended the opinion with cover art and other images of the characters in question. These cases themselves now appear in treatises, ALR annotations and law review articles on copyright law.