Superhero Intellectual Property Disputes

Superhero Intellectual Property Disputes

by Bilal Kaiser, September 2010

What do Batman, Superman, and even The X-Men have in common? Aside from being iconic superheroes in American pop culture history, each character's creators have been involved in various legal disputes over the years. Intellectual property disputes, instances in which one party claims to have legal ownership of a creative concept or project, do come up frequently in the creative industry. For classic superhero characters with multiple creators and generations of fans, an IP dispute can quickly grow into a complicated and costly battle for creative rights—and control.

Here are three noteworthy cases of IP disputes involving superheroes in recent years:

1. Batman

Batman is one of the most popular superheroes of our time and film director Christopher Nolan newly reignited our fascination with him in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. But despite the popularity of the Caped Crusader, the 1960s TV series starring Adam West has never been officially released on DVD due to a rumored legal battle between DC Comics and film studios Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox.

An placeholder page has 95 customer reviews for a product not yet available for sale. And while there is no official word on why the series isn't out on DVD, Wikipedia lays out several theories, all involving intellectual property rights issues.

2. Superman

The Man of Steel, otherwise known as Superman, was co-created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster in 1938. Since then, the character has been resurrected time and time again in comic books, movies, TV series, cartoons, toys, etc.

In August 2009, heirs of Jerry Siegel (and later, the Shuster estate) fought to capture the US copyright for Superman and his assorted identity features (alter-ego Clark Kent and his job at Daily Planet, among others) from Warner Brothers and DC Comics—and won. Now, in addition to owning the copyright as granted by federal courts, the heirs may be owed profits that the entertainment giants have made from the character since 1999, which is when the copyright was back-dated to take effect.

But the battle over the Man of Steel continues. In May 2010, yet another lawsuit commenced.

3. Spawn

The popular comic book characters of Spawn were at the center of another recent IP battle. In the 1990s, Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane co-created characters for the Spawn series, but due to unfortunate business circumstances, McFarlane's company went bankrupt and he was unable to compensate Gaiman.

As business got better for McFarlane, his company started releasing characters derived from the duo's original characters. Gaiman sued on the basis that the new characters were simply variations on the original characters—for which Gaiman was owed a share of the profits—and the judge agreed.

Superheroes may save innocent citizens from burning buildings or evil henchmen, but their creators have no superhuman ability to protect their work. As more characters are introduced or resurrected for a new generation of fans, you can bet that creators, publishers, and entertainment studios will do all they can to secure the best legal protection.

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More info:

MediaTalk; Who Deserves The Credit (and Cash) For Dreaming Up Those Superheroes?