You Gotta Fight For Your Rights To Comics
Revisiting last week’s “Watchmen” item in the PopCulteer, I don’t want it to seem like I’m completely coming down on the side of DC Comics in the whole creator’s rights issue. There are a few facts that can’t be denied. First, DC Comics, like most corporate entities, has a pretty dodgy history when it comes to treating creative people in a fair and ethical way. Second, recent changes in copyright law have greatly confused matters for everyone involved. Third, while DC Comics has treated Alan Moore exceptionally well compared to other creators, that’s mainly because he’s made them a buttload of money over the years. Creators are still running into a brick wall at times with DC.
From day one, DC Comics (known in the beginning as National Periodical Publications) has exploited the creativity of young, not-too-savvy, non-business people. Their treatment of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, has been legendary in its greed and pettiness. DC purchased the rights to their flagship character for less than a couple of hundred dollars in 1938, and it was not until the eve of the release of the 1978 Superman movie that DC’s corporate owner, Warner Communications, was shamed into paying Siegel and Shuster a pension and restoring their names as the creators of Superman.
It’s important to note that DC Comics brokered a much better deal with Bob Kane, the credited creator of Batman. Kane, who was around the same age as Siegel and Shuster, negotiated a deal with DC Comics for the rights to Batman that made him a multi-millionaire/celebrity artist. Proof that it’s not just soulless corporations that can screw creative people is the fact that Kane managed to omit the contributions of his collaborator, Bill Finger, from those negotiations. Finger, a law student and writer of most early Batman stories, made several suggestions to Kane during the creation of Batman. He suggested changing
the name from “The Bat,” he came up with the Bat Cave, the name Bruce Wayne, the idea that he was independently wealthy; plus, he suggested that Batman’s costume should be gray and black instead of green and yellow. Finger never received full credit for role as co-creator of the Batman and died a penniless alcoholic in 1973.Even after his death, Kane refused to allow DC to give him an offical co-creator credit. His writing was considered “work made for hire.” With “work made for hire,” the publisher is considered the creator or author of the work, while the actual creators are considered mere workers, as if they were on an assembly line.
Then we get to the matter of the new copyright laws. It’s no secret that corporate America has been lobbying Congress for years to change the copyright laws so that they more strongly favor corporations over individual creators. This is not just in the case of comic books. It also applies to movies, the music industry, book publishing, and any other endeavor where there’s a lone creative voice waiting to be smothered under a laundry basket full of lawyers and bled dry.
Ironically, they would not have been as successful in screwing with the copyright laws if it hadn’t been for one unfortunately placed tree. Sonny Bono, a Congressman from California who was bought and paid for by the entertainment industry, was pushing a bill through Congress that was part of a slate of copyright law reforms that corporations hope will eventually allow them to retain ownership of their intellectual property forever.
This is a direct contradiction of the will of our Founding Fathers, who set forth the notion that a person should benefit financially from their creative works, but that after a period of time, those works should fall into the public domain for the betterment of society as a whole. Originally an author could protect his work for up to 28 years. It was actually Charles Dickens (whose 200th birthday was just this week) who helped push through reforms to more effectively protect creative works from exploitation by greedy businessmen during his second US tour in the mid-nineteenth century.
The “Sonny Bono Bill,” which included The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, was not gaining much traction in Congress until the unfortunate skiing death of the former Mr. Cher. Out of sympathy over Bono’s death, the bill was passed and several bizarre and arcane new copyright laws fell into place. The idea was to stack the deck in favor of corporations and against individual creators. However, the bill was so strangely written that some of the estates of creators are attempting to exploit it to regain the rights to some very well known characters. So far, none of these efforts have proved completely successful in court.
The big giveaway to the corporations however, was the lengthening of the period of time before a work falls into the public domain from seventy-five years to ninety-five years, up to one-hundred-twenty years in some cases or seventy-five years after the author’s death. While the idea was that this would give authors and creators twenty extra years to earn money based on their work, in the case of “work made for hire,” the governing principle under which the vast majority of comic books are created, it merely gives corporations the right to exploit those works for an additional twenty or more years.
To put it bluntly, there are famous characters whose early stories would be in the public domain right now if it were not for this law. There are even some characters that are in the public domain already, but which are not being heavily exploited due to aggressive corporate lawyering. Disney’s big action movie this year is “John Carter,” based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s “John Carter, Warlord of Mars” books. Those books are in the public domain. Anybody can make a movie based on “John Carter, Warlord of Mars.” “The Wizard of Oz” books are in the public domain. The early “Tarzan” books are in the public domain.
If it were not for the “Bono Bill,” Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and Porky Pig would be public domain characters that anyone could use in a creative work. Next year, Superman turns seventy-five. If the “Bono Bill” had not passed, that would mean that next year, anybody who wanted to publish a comic book with Superman in it could do so. They couldn’t call him Superman on the cover because DC still owns the trademark, but they could put Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane as much as they wanted to inside the comic. This is one reason that DC Comics has spent so much money maintaining every possible trademark that could be used for a comic book title, such as Krypton, Metropolis, Smallville, The Daily Planet, and The Man of Steel.
One of the quirks of the “Bono Bill” is a provision that allows the estates of deceased creators to file to terminate any assigned rights to their creations within a few years after their passing. This is why DC Comics is on the verge of losing half the copyrights to the original Superman stories to the estate of Jerry Siegel and why they will probably also lose the other half of those rights to the estate of Joe Shuster. The problem is that the law as written is vague and has created a huge mess of litigation in terms of derivative rights, trademark ownership, and how much money is owed to which parties for what rights. The Siegel case has been dragging on for years and may have actually inspired the recent changes to Superman’s costume (he’s lost the red trunks).
Similar cases which have the estate of Jack Kirby seeking his half of the rights to The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, the X-Men, The Hulk, and most of the foundation of Marvel Comics, have been less successful, possibly due to Marvel’s parent company, Disney, having an endless supply of ninja-like corporate lawyers to descend on the courtrooms like carpet beetles on a carcass.
Over the years, DC Comics has employed situational ethics when it comes to giving the creators of its many characters proper credit and renumeration. However, in the 1980’s, thanks largely to then-publisher Jenette Kahn, DC took a more progressive approach, awarding creators proper credit, royalties, and in some cases, more liberal reversion rights than DC had been used to giving out before. My point last week was that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons pretty much had the best deal that DC gave any creators at the time and they have been paid quite well for their efforts over the last twenty-five years.
Other creators who did not have the marquee value of Alan Moore were not so lucky and there are many cases where it seems like DC Comics is deliberately sitting on properties that have had offers to be developed as movies or TV shows but to which DC is not willing to negotiate or give up the rights. There is some speculation that DC is doing this under a corporate directive from their parent company, Time Warner, to surpress potential movies or TV shows that would compete with other Time Warner properties like “True Blood,” “Supernatural,” or the Harry Potter franchise.
While Moore is upset that the rights to the Watchmen have not reverted back to him because DC Comics has kept the book in print, there are other creators who have watched six-figure movie options go down the drain because DC Comics still has their books in a warehouse somewhere, technically still in print, and is sending them a royalty check for six dollars or so each year.
So basically, copyright law was a morass of red tape to begin with. Its been made worse with the recent changes and it may all be made moot with new technology. Creators facing the digital age may find that it’s simply impossible to earn a living wage creating comic books (or regular books,or music, or short films) in an age where they can be digitally transmitted and downloaded in a matter of seconds. Current business models with publishers, studios, and record labels are quickly becoming irrelevant. Somebody can write a catchy song, create a clever video, upload it to YouTube and if it goes viral and gets a few million hits, they’ll probably wind up getting a bigger check than if they’d recorded a hit single for a major label. As digital comics become more accepted, we could see creators bypass Marvel and DC and go directly to the public via the Internet. The future, as always, is uncertain.
The Greatest Thing In The World
Friday night, there’s entertainment all over town. Bare Bones bring their acapella music to Taylor Books at 7:30 PM, with no cover. Also cover-free at 9 PM, The Bark-O-Loungers perform at Bruno’s on Leon Sullivan Way. The Hybrid Soul Project kicks off at 11 PM at The Empty Glass with a $7 cover, $5 before 11 PM. Also, you still have a chance to see Mandy Harper as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” at 8 PM at the WVSU Capitol Center Theater. At the Kanawha Players Theater at 8 PM, it’s opening night for “Lend Me A Tenor.” From 9 PM to 11PM you can head to Little India for The Snake And The Pot, original music and bellydancing, plus access to tasty Indian food.
Saturday from 7 to 9 PM at the Bluegrass Kitchen, with no cover, you can see Mirium Bria. Rick Perdue will be performing 7:30 to 11:30 with no cover at the Bridge Road Bistro. At 7:30, Taylor Books presents Mike Bennett. At 11 PM, c2j2, Ghost Fleet, and Freaktent will be at The Empty Glass with a $7 cover ($5 before 11 PM.)
That’s it for this week. Your PopCulteer is still hard at work on Radio Free Charleston 150. Our tribute to LiveMix Studio should be online by the end of the month. Also remember to check PopCult for Sunday Evening Videos and Monday Morning Art and maybe, in the next few days, we’ll have a little bonus coverage of the International Toy Fair in New York City.