What super power do King Kong, Dracula, Captain Nemo, and Ebenezer Scrooge all possess, but Superman does not?
They’re free to be used in whatever stories people would like to tell about them.
The copyright for Superman was originally slated to expire in 1989, 28 years after the copyright was established with an additional 28 year renewal period. In 1976, Congress extended the renewal period from 28 to 47 years, providing a 75 year lifespan to copyrights. This would have meant Superman would enter the public domain upon his seventy-fifth anniversary, just this last week. However, in 1998, Congress added an additional 20 years to copyrights established before 1978. This means that Superman is still 20 years away from entering the public domain.
Why does any of this matter though? It has an impact outside of the legal battles between DC Comics, the Jerry Siegel family, and the Joe Shuster estate (Which I will not even attempt to touch upon, as I enjoy my sanity and do not want to be paying outrageous attorney fees to a good buddy for explaining it all). It has an impact upon the society in which the character exists. That statement sounds over-inflated and douche-tastic, but don’t worry, I’m going to back this up.
When a character to remain relevant and valuable for seventy-five years, they are not merely popular, they are valuable to the society in which they exist. Stories add value to our daily lives. They teach us lessons. They help us grow and understand the world. I would argue that a single story has had a greater impact upon the Western world than anything else. We base our calendar years around the occurrence of the story even.
Consider other characters and stories which have passed into the public domain as well, like Dracula or “A Christmas Carol”. Dracula is a horror icon, utilized for better (Salem’s Lot) or worse (Dracula 3000) in innumerable stories in the last decade. “A Christmas Carol” is regularly featured in theaters, small and large, every holiday season. It’s a story that’s been interpreted into various periods and overlaid with various characters. Just last year, Lee Bermejo released his comic version of the tale “Noel”, featuring Batman as Ebenezer Scrooge. We’re better off for having all of these stories made available to the public.
Superman is just as important and relevant to society, if not more so, than these examples.
Superman inspires us, gives us hope, and tells us that we’re stronger than we think we are. The best Superman stories present a character who is a pillar of goodness and strength without dissolving into simplistic morality tales or two-dimensional absurdities. He’s a character that is recognized throughout the world as a pillar of goodness. He’s important, more important than most characters ever will be.
And now, after seventy-five years, it’s no longer the creators of ideas who are benefitting from them, but the companies or estates which have gained the rights to the creations. The purpose of copyright laws are to ensure that creators benefit from original works. Current copyright laws and additional extensions only help owners to engage in rent-seeking behaviors. No good comes from Warner Brothers continued ownership of the character Superman. It places a corporation as the gatekeeper to what stories can and cannot be told. Writers like Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman), Alan Moore (For the Man Who Has Everything), and Mark Waid (Birthright) have told incredible stories about the Man of Steel, but their ability to do so is controlled by Warner Brothers. Other creators who wish to address this national icon have only the slightest of chances to do so. The copyright of Superman does no one any good, but the shareholders of Warner Brothers.
Seventy-five years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, two young men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did something incredible. The character they created has inspired Americans and the world alike ever since in comics, films, television, books, and on the radio. In many ways, Superman already belongs to the hearts and minds of the world. It should only be a matter of time before the law reflects that.