The family of Jerry Siegel has won an important victory in their battle for past-due royalties for Siegel’s contribution to the Superman comic book series. Siegel, who with co-creator Joe Shuster created the Superman character in 1938, lost a 1974 court decision, which held that Siegel had signed his rights to the character away to DC Comics’ predecessor Detective Comics.
The 92-page ruling held that Siegel owned the first two weeks of the newspaper comic strips that established major elements of the Superman mythos, including Superman’s origin from Krypton, Superman’s journey through space and eventual landing on Earth, and his parents Jor-El and Lora. Judge Stephen Larson ruled that these elements were not works-made-for-hire under the Copyright Act.
While this ruling was made under the Copyright Act of 1909 and deals with the recapture of rights, it brings to light common issues that are still relevant under the Copyright Act of 1976. If you are an employer who wishes to retain the copyright rights to works created by your employees, it is important that you have your employees execute a valid and enforceable work made for hire agreement prior to the creation of the work. Conversely, if you are an artist who is unsure whether you are an independent contractor or an employee, it is important that you define both your employment relationship and the ownership of copyright rights to your works through a validly executed independent contractor agreement.