Confounding Comic Copyright

Jamie Maclean

What I believe to be the perfect summary of how Comic publishing/copyright works (image: Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #81. Pub Feb. 1968)

Copyright has not been kind to comic creators, nor has the publishing that goes along with it. While today it is easy to register a copyright for your comic, back in the industry’s early days it was not the case thanks to a little-known copyright law called “work for hire.” This law states, that if an employee of a comic company (in my source the example is Marvel) creates a comic character then the ownership of that character goes to the company, not the employee. While the law was revised somewhat to allow the true creators to receive credit, for decades it was detrimental to comic authors and creators (Jassin).

This is most evident in the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Two teenage immigrants living in Cleveland, Ohio had an idea for a Superhero. After shopping around for publishers, the character was eventually published by DC Comics in 1938 in the new book Action Comics #1. The name of the character was Superman (Sigel, Shuster, and Superman).

Now in this case, the creators did sell Superman directly (For $130, in case you’re wondering), but while that is all fine and dandy it meant that the two no longer had any creative input on their creation, as DC owned Superman completely despite Siegel and Shuster having designed the character from the ground up.  Because of this the two weren’t even credited as Superman’s’ creators until the 1978 film, nearly forty years after the original comic was published (Superman, 1978).

But that’s only part of the story and leads into another rather tragic tale of how the legalities of the comic industry have troubled the various writers and creators. In the 1940s Siegel and Shuster did attempt to buy back Superman; their plan was to create a legal suit against the company, but they were allegedly “ratted out” by Bob Kane, am employee and credited solo creator of Batman (Chris-sims). That last sentence is why the story is tragic.

The reason for this is that while Bob Kane was part of Batman’s creation, he was not the sole creator. While there were many artists and writers that helped contribute, the most notable was Kane’s fried Bill Finger who has been (unofficially, until recently) credited with the creation of the iconic Cowl, mask, Batmobile, several support characters, the origin story and in part responsible for the creation of Batman villain the Joker. Despite this, Bill Finger himself was never credited due to Bob Kane’s contracts with DC. (The actual details are hard to find, but what I gleaned from my research was that his contract asserted he was the sole creator (Alter-Ego Vol 2)). This was not just a legal denial either, in an open letter to fan Magazine Batmania in 1965 he openly said that Bill Finger does not deserve credit and that “if Bill co-authored and conceived the idea, either with me or before me, then he would most certainly have a by-line on the strip along with my name, the same as Siegel and Schuster had as creators of Superman. However, it remains obvious that my name appears on the strip alone, proving that I created the idea first and then called Bill in later, after my publisher okayed my original creation.”

Bob Kane would continue these claims up until his death in 1998. Bill Finger himself died in 1974, and never received credit while he was still alive. It wasn’t until 2015 when he was finally given co-credit on a reprint of the original Batman story from Detective comics #28 (Karlin).

Image: Bricken, Rob. “Here’s how awful Batman would be without the existence of Bill Finger.” Io9. Io9.gizmodo.com, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.

Publishing, copyright and everything that goes along with them has had major several hurdles in the comic industry, and continues today with the various licencing and rights issues regarding the Marvel movies (which is something I can’t even begin to describe). Nevertheless, Copyright and publication issues has been large part of the industry and makes it stand out among other known published genres.

Works cited:

Andy-khouri. “Behold the Check DC Comics Wrote in 1938 for the Exclusive Rights to Superman.” ComicsAlliance, 25 Oct. 2011, comicsalliance.com/superman-check-jerry-siegel-joe-shuster-dc-comics/. Accessed 13th Mar. 2017.

“Alter Ego Vol. 2 No. 3 – Bob Kane Batmania Letter – Comic Book Artist #3 – TwoMorrows Publishing.” Alter Ego Vol. 2 No. 3 – Bob Kane Batmania Letter – Comic Book Artist #3 – TwoMorrows Publishing. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.

Chris-sims. “Ask Chris #164: Bob Kane Is Just The Worst.” ComicsAlliance. N.p., 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.

Superman. Dir. Richard Donner. Perf. Christopher Reeves. Warner Bros, 1978. DVD.

Karlin, Susan. “Who Really Created Batman? A DC Comics Historian Weighs In On The Controversy.” Co.Create. N.p., 22 July 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

“Siegel, Shuster and Superman.” Siegel, Shuster and Superman. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Writer, Leaf Group. “Comic Copyright Laws.” Legal Beagle, Leaf Group, legalbeagle.com/5373663-comic-copyright-laws.html. Accessed 13th Mar. 2017.

Jassin, Lloyd J. “Work For Hire.” Work For Hire. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

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