The creators of Superman sold their copyright during the Great Depression for $130. Their heirs are now in the process of reclaiming that valuable copyright. Their tale is a graphic demonstration of the important copyright reversion rules under the Copyright Act. Under the Act, artists who sold their works many years ago are entitled to recover them, even if they signed contracts that said otherwise. This article explains the importance of these copyright reversion rights and what artists must do to reclaim the rights to their work. demonstration of the important copyright reversion rules under the Copyright Act. Under the Act, artists who sold their works many years ago are entitled to recover them, even if they signed contracts that said otherwise. This article explains the importance of these copyright reversion rights and what artists must do to reclaim the rights to their work.
During the Great Depression, Jerry Siegel and Jerome Shuster created Superman, the now-famous hero who fights to defend truth, justice, and the American Way. Siegel and Shuster then sold the Man of Steel to Detective Comics for $130. In hindsight, we can safely conclude this was not a great deal for the sellers. Indeed, only the daily workings of Congress rival such a gargantuan waste of valuable property. But Superman's creators are not alone. Artists of all kinds have found themselves in a similar position, forced to sell the copyrights in their creative works to make ends meet. Those artists should know that, as with practically all superhero tales, the Superman story has a happy ending. And theirs can too.
In most walks of life, a sale, like a diamond, is forever. Absent unusual circumstances, if you sell your car, it is gone. You have no more right to it, and you never will. Most authors of copyrighted works - be they musicians, artists, authors or architects - probably assume that the same rules apply to their copyright: once assigned, the copyright is gone forever.
It is not. The Copyright Act, in provisions that are virtually unique in all of American law, allow the author of a copyrighted work can reclaim his or her copyright many decades later by jumping through the right legal hoops at just the right time. Because of these reversion provisions, Mr. Siegel's heirs are in the process of reclaiming the Superman copyright, a process that will result in the multimillion dollar transfer of wealth from Warner Brothers to them. All other authors of valuable copyrighted material-and the heirs of such authors-should pay attention to their story.
The copyright reversion rules under the Copyright Act are complicated, and it is likely impossible in a short article to turn a lay person into an expert. In light of the complexity of the process and the consequences of failure, it makes very little sense for most copyright authors to try and reclaim copyrights on their own. Legal help is almost certainly required.
But when should a copyright author who assigned his or her work seek legal counsel to start the process? The answer depends on when the copyrighted work was first created. For all copyrighted works created before January 1, 1978, the Copyright Act of 1909 provides the ground rules. Originally, copyrights under the 1909 Act lasted 28 years. (Was that it in the beginning, or was there always a 28-year renewal term?) At the end of the 28 years, the copyright ended, and the material was freely available to the public. Congress has added to a copyright's life expectancy on multiple occasions since then, and these days a copyright under the 1909 Act can last up to 95 years. The right to terminate an assignment and reclaim a copyright under the 1909 Act can occur after the first 28 years, at the end of 56 years, or at the end of 75 years.
The rules are different for copyrighted works created after January 1, 1978, because the Copyright Act of 1976 applies. Under the 1976 Act, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. And a copyright assignment can be terminated-and the copyright reclaimed-after 35 years. This means, of course, that the earliest copyright reversions under the 1976 Act will begin in 2013. Copyright authors like Paul McCartney and Elton John are-or at least should be-preparing to reclaim their rights. The current owners of their copyrights are no doubt planning their strategies to hang on.
Two other points are worth noting. First, the copyright reversion right is non-waivable. In other words, even if the copyright author agreed to give up his or her reversion rights, those rights still exist. The usual rules of contract law do not apply. Nor do the usual rules regarding probate. A copyright assigned through a will is not lost forever. The heirs of the dead copyright author-the very people the copyright author apparently did not want to have the copyright-are entitled to reclaim it anyway.
Second, and finally, copyright authors should not wait until the last minute to begin the process of reclaiming their property. The Copyright Act requires authors to give notice before the reversion occurs, and the notice period begins years before the copyright reversion can be seized. Moreover, legal counsel might require some time to investigate and prepare your case, so waiting until the last second could potentially prejudice your rights.
As anybody who has watched the Superman movies knows, Superman always comes back. He certainly has come back to the heirs of those who created him. And if you or a relative created a valuable copyrighted work, you may find that your creation can return as well.
About the Author
Chris Arledge, a partner in the law firm Turner Green Afrasiabi & Arledge LLP, specializes in copyright, trademark and patent disputes. You can learn more about Chris at www.turnergreen.com