I wrote a lot about the copyright case between the family of Jerry Siegel and DC Comics over Superman, but I have a lot less to say about the recent ruling against Jack Kirby’s children. Read the ruling here.
From a legal perspective, nothing should have surprised anyone about either of these cases. The facts in the Siegel case make it an ideal candidate for copyright termination while the Kirby case always depended on making a convincing argument that Jack didn’t work under work for hire rules. The depositions posted at 20th Century Danny Boy a few months back were fascinating for the details they mined about how Marvel operated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But nothing in that testimony did anything to refute the idea that Kirby was a freelancer doing work for hire.
I wish this had at least gone to trial, so that we could hear the arguments the Kirbys’ lawyer, Marc Toberoff, planned to make in this regard. But Kirby’s life and work have been pretty thoroughly documented by this point and there appears to be not even an inkling of a smoking gun document somewhere that would turn the tables.
The Kirby and Superman cases are similar in at least one way: Neither would have been necessary had the corporate owners of DC and Marvel simply stepped up to the plate and done the right thing by giving credit to and sharing even a sliver of the wealth these artists generated for them.
Comics artist Stephen Bissette has written a lengthy post at his blog urging comics fans to engage in a boycott and stop buying any Marvel products derived from Kirby’s work. He’s picked up this idea from the success of one DC fan’s efforts to ask DC creators and execs at Comic-Con why they haven’t hired more female creators or publish more female characters. It didn’t take much — she asked the questions at several panels and it got some buzz in the comics press — but it did result in a statement from Jim Lee and Dan DiDio saying they would hire more women creators. I don’t think most fans will stop buying FF, Thor, Hulk or X-Men comics on those grounds. But bad publicity helped put some pressure on Marvel during Kirby’s art return dispute with the company in the 1980s. It also helped Siegel and Shuster get a deal in the mid-1970s for an annual stipend and health benefits. Maybe it could work again.
It would be the right thing, the moral thing for Marvel to honor Kirby’s contributions with credit and a share of the immense profits it generated.
I’m also interested in this argument Bissette has linked to that questions the legal basis of corporate ownership of copyrights and the entire work for hire concept. The United States is a very friendly place for corporations, so I expect we’ll never see corporations lose their rights to own a copyright. In fact, the opposite is likely — that corporations will get more rights and extend copyrights even further beyond the limited terms called for by the Constitution.
The best lesson for comics creators to take away from all this is to create your own characters, your own comics and don’t sell them to the first publisher that offers to put out your book. Comics as an art form and as an industry needs new ideas and new books. Much of the malaise many fans feel comes from the fact that the market is so dominated by Marvel and DC characters that are, in most casts, between 50 and 75 years old. They’re great characters, but it might be time to make some new ones, or the industry and the art form risk dying off along with the audiences that are still hanging on to ideas that increasingly struggle to be relevant to the lives of readers living in the 21st century.