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Check DC wrote in 1938 for rights to Superman goes up for auction

Characterized by Matt Fraction as “the most important $412 dollars in comics history,” the check written to a young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in part, for the rights to Superman, has surfaced among the items for an upcoming auction.

“Have you ever made a business decision that haunted you?” writer Gerry Duggan tweeted Monday, pointing to images of the check. “This piece of true comics history will make you feel better.”

Indeed that check, written March 1, 1938, by Detective Comics Publisher Jack Liebowitz, has been key to several legal and moral disputes, the first beginning barely a year after its signing. (Bleeding Cool notes an April 6, 1939, stamp on the back for the U.S. District Court of New York, suggesting it was entered as evidence in DC’s copyright-infringement lawsuit against Bruns Publications over the Will Eisner-created Wonder Man.)

Of the $412, $130 was for the rights to Superman; the remaining $282 was in payment for stories contributed to Detective Comics, Adventure Comics and More Fun Comics. It’s worth pointing out that Liebowitz managed to misspell the last names of both Siegel and Shuster, leading them to sign twice on the back.

The check will be among the items from Siegel’s personal collection auctioned Nov. 14-30 by Comic Connect. Other memorabilia include Siegel’s favorite suit and tie, clumps of his hair — yes, you read that correctly — his personal typewriter and a Superman script.

“Much has been made of the original 1938 $130 payment to Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster,” Comic Connect said in a statement. “Did DC Comics take advantage of two eager young men looking for their big break in the comic business or was this unequivocally fair business practice between comic book writers and publishers in a 1938 America? Whatever you believe, the $130 check is the quintessential symbol of this debate for the ages.”



130 Dollar from 1938 would be around 2000 in 2011.

Remember: they had been shopping Superman unsucsessfully for years, most likely they thought that 130 Dollar were a sound decision – in ’38 nobody knew it would be a surefire hit lasting for decades, left alone a few issues.

Hindsight is always 20.20.

I agree with the above post. Too bad Siegel and Shuster were not rewarded royalties, which were probably nonexistent in 1938. Two young eager men wanting to break into the business and not realizing how huge of an everlasting effect their creation will become. They should have been compensated by DC after Supes exploded in pop culture. If anything they set an important example on creator owned work.

Agree with the 1st post. DC is the one who took the gamble and used their money to push the brand. I see this as a greedy family that wants money for nothing that they did.

I’m sorry, you guys, but you’re assuming a lot of modern practices that were built on the backs of this deal when you call out support for DC for taking the risk or whatever it is you’re going on about. As far as I understand it (which, admittedly, comes from observation but no real legal expertise), the common practice for publishing in the ’30s was the same way that most book publishers have always done: the company pays for the publishing rights while the IP stays in the hands of the author. Arthur Conan Doyle owned Sherlock Holmes, not The Strand. Compound that with the fact that the closest business model to comic books – comic strips – often saw their character rights stay with the artists even with the big powerful syndicates, and the picture of the DC deal is way different.

Namely, DC knew they were taking away rights from Siegel and Shuster that most other reputable and established publishers would never have assumed, and then they held the bad deal over the heads of the creators in all sorts of crazy ways over the years that followed.

We may never know whether or not Jerry and Joe fully understood what they were signing away or that they were signing it away back in ’38, but the idea that DC just did business as usual and saw a surprise windfall is a completely false one.

You can be sorry all you want, but I doubt that Siegel & Shuster were dumb enough to not know the implications to outright sell the character.

Superman was a failure up to that point. So this check was not a bad business decision in the light of that day.

Should they have been properly compensated from the millions Superman made DC in the following decades? Hell yeah, no doubt.

I am a lawyer and, generally, ignorance of the law is not a defense. We presume parties to a contract intend the outcome of their actions otherwise all basis for agreement would break down and contracts would be unformable. That said, the issue of whether they intended the contract, did sell the rights, etc. was already fought and lost in court decades ago. They raised every defense and argument to void their contract but three levels of courts didn’t buy it.

The present issue now has nothing to do with the parties’ original intentions or actions, it’s entirely a retroactive seller’s remorse ex-post facto law applied to the agreement provided it was made before a certain date and not a work-for-hire, which gives the original seller massive leverage in renegotiating licensing rights and/or reclaiming the copyright by exercising termination rights on the original sale (rather than it reverting to public domain as would have happened before the Copyright Extension Act). This is a bizarre anomaly that exists only in the USA, which is internationally and academically panned as a practice that fails to achieve its intended goals across the board (for example, Kirby still screwed; S&S see no benefit in their lifetimes; public domain is not enriched; heirs see a windfall; and the body who actually developed the IP gets tolled in a way that in no way creates an incentive to enrich the public domain in the future).

Irrespective of your position on the result, the law behind it is poorly conceived. As a practical example, the law doesn’t allow the creators to assign or terminate their termination rights! That means that even if DC paid out the nose to ask the heirs to not exercise the right, all they can rely on is the heirs’ word… and agreement to not use the right is unenforceable (like selling a right to vote). Which is exactly how DC’s been screwed before- paying out, then the heirs reneg and demand payment again. It also meant that even if S&S didn’t want to sue and/or didn’t want the right to go to their legal heirs, they could not disinherit them as to this right because of the way the law was written. Shuster’s nephew- who has little emotional connection to the creator- stands to get a massive windfall from DC that Shuster probably never intended for him nor could stop him from getting given the way the law was enacted.

I mostly agree with mckraken’s p.o.v., but I would not presume of S&S’s business sense at that time; they may well have been “dumb enough” by lack of business experience, or were that deperate to not think this all through with a lawyer (hell, let alone afford one!) when selling their rights to Supes. They may well have gotten reckless, too eager to close the deal and escape the Great depression, like everybody else at that time.

Often times, artists are better at being artists then businessmen, that is a classic. As Supes was a “failure up to that point”, they probably wanted to close the deal badly, disregarding their rights, unlike, let’s say, Bob Kane.

As Mark Evanier reported in his book about Jack Kirby, the King believed for quite some times that some of Marvel’s success in the sixties would trickle down to him; even a grown man has the right to dream, and so much for the business sense when swimming with corporate sharks; that’s why these guys got eaten up so easily….

The check means nothing; if the Wiki page is accurate, DC paid S&S huge royalties from the beginning–$75,000/year by 1940 (only 2 years after selling). But they wanted more–DC renegotiated in good faith, but S&S weren’t happy, they wanted more…more…more… I’m usually on the side of creators but if this is true then they were two of the most self-destructive, greedy, idiotic creators in comics history. They could have lived like kings and maybe actually created something else, instead they lived in bitter self-created poverty until Warner Co. paid them a pension and health care–which they literally did out of the goodness of their hearts.

Where I agree with the estates still suing DC is that copyrights should NOT be allowed to go on forever–the Sonny Bono Mickey Mouse 4Ever Copyright Extension Act was a terrible piece of work. But that doesn’t only apply to corporations…ALL copyrights should be null and void after 75 years (or less) and the work put into the public domain, whether owned by creators or corporations. Bad laws, bad creators, bad all around.

I’m friends with Gerry Duggan … Sure hope he’s keeping the rights to the Eisner nominated Infinite Horizon!

whether or not DC gave S&S health care and a pension “out of the goodness of their hearts,” you have to admit, it was also great PR and perhaps protected their image by not being soul-less bastards.

So missing the point. They’re auctioning entire clumps of hair here! The clones should be productive in what, 15 years?

pDUB: agreed. “goodness…” was a poor phrase choice.

Xian: excellent comments, great to learn more about the law and how it (doesn’t) work. “seller’s remorse ex-post facto” lawsuit…indeed. And from 2 guys who were pulling down, in current dollars, about $1.5 million/year from DC.

The clones should be productive in what, 15 years?

Im all for that. Jerry Siegel did an amazing job on the 60ies Superman.

There’s no polite way to say this. Though partially their fault for being overly naive, Siegel & Shuster got fucked.

Anyone else notice that the numbers ‘1337’ were imprinted into the check?

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