Superboy Ruling Throws Smallville Rights Into Limbo

A federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled that the WB's SMALLVILLE may be infringing on the copyrights held on the Superboy character by the widow and daughter of Jerome Siegel, creator of the comicbook series, reports VARIETY. The March 23 summary judgment by Judge Ronald S.W. Lew also found that Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson had successfully recaptured the Superboy rights as of Nov. 17, 2004.

Lew's rulings against Time Warner, Warner Bros. and DC Comics throw the ownership of SMALLVILLE episodes that have run since November 2004 in limbo. Lew denied a request by the defendants for a ruling that SMALLVILLE did not infringe on the Superboy copyrights.

Warner Bros. said that it "respectfully disagrees" with the rulings and will file an appeal.

The infringement suit was filed in 2004, but no trial date has been set.

In their request for partial summary judgment, Siegel and Larson didn't request a copyright infringement ruling, which Lew said would require a "detailed factual comparison." But he noted, "Enough facts are presented, where this court, contrary to defendants' request, could find that the main character in SMALLVILLE is in fact Superboy."

Lew added in a footnote, "In the Superboy comic strip, a billboard on the side of a rural country road announces, 'Welcome to Smallville! Home of Superboy."

In response, Warner Bros. claims that Superboy is a different character from the young Superman depicted in the popular TV series. "Moreover, the court's ruling does not affect the television series SMALLVILLE, which is grounded in depictions of a young Superman that pre-date the publication of Superboy in 1944 and which therefore are not subject to the termination notice, even if valid.

Marc Toberoff, who represents Siegel and Larson, told DAILY VARIETY that the only representations of a younger Superman which pre-date 1944 Superboy consist of one or two panels showing Superman as a baby or toddler. "Jerry Siegel's Superboy focuses on Superboy's relationship with his parents and his adventures with school classmates in a small town which, by SUPERBOY No. 2, was named Smallville," he added.

The dispute over who owns Superboy goes back to 1938 the same year the first SUPERMAN comicbook, based on the story originated by Siegel and illustrator Joseph Shuster, was published.

Then, Siegel agreed to provide Detective Comics with a new Superboy comicstrip and submitted a plan that was rejected. Siegel unsuccessfully tried several more times to sell Detective on Superboy before he entered the Army in 1943.

Detective then began publishing SUPERBOY comics in 1944 while Siegel was stationed in the Pacific, resulting in a 1947 lawsuit where New York state court Judge Addison Young ruled Siegel to be the sole owner of Superboy. In 1948, Siegel reached a settlement with National Comics Publications (predecessor of DC Comics) where he sold ownership of Superboy and Superman to National.

Then in 1973, Siegel and Shuster sued to regain the SUPERMAN copyright, but lost that suit two years later. Siegel then launched a PR campaign to protest DC Comics' treatment of him and Shuster, putting a "curse" on the upcoming SUPERMAN film and resulting in Warner Communications paying annual pensions to the duo along with credit as co-creators.

Shuster died in 1992; Siegel passed away four years later.

The Superboy copyrights were granted originally for the standard 28 years then renewed for another 28 years between 1972 and 1975.

However, in 1976, Congress amended copyright law to extend renewal terms from 28 years to 47 years so that authors and their heirs could regain copyrights for the extended renewal period. So in late 2002, Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson served the standard two-year notice they were ending the 1948 grant of the SUPERBOY copyright.

In reply in August 2004, DC Comics informed Siegel and Larson it was denying the validity of the termination notice and said it would "vigorously oppose" any attempt to exploit the SUPERBOY copyrights. Two months later, Siegel and Larson filed their lawsuit.

Time Warner and its co-defendants argued Superboy was simply a younger version of Superman and that Superboy was "work for hire" solely owned by its predecessors. However, Lew stated those arguments were unpersuasive in light of rulings made by Judge Young in the 1947 trial.

"Defendants' argument also contradicts the fact that Siegel subsequently transferred his exclusive interest in SUPERBOY to National in the May 19, 1948, stipulated settlement. Had SUPERBOY been nothing more than a derivative work, Siegel would have owned no interest in the SUPERBOY property to transfer."

Lew also noted that the defendants' predecessors had relied on Young's rulings in previous cases such as Siegel-Shuster's unsuccessful 1973 suit. "Defendants now take the inconsistent position that this court is not bound by the state court findings, as they relate to SUPERBOY," he wrote.

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