The latest Superman reboot Man of Steel is hitting the big screen this summer. But today’s ruling by the U.S. District Court in the studio’s favor means Warner Bros now has full license to make a Superboy movie. Thursday’s order by Judge Otis Wright III affirmed a contested 2001 agreement between the estate of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and DC Comics. Granted it’s premature to start talking about a Superboy movie. But not if Man of Steel‘s June 14-16 opening weekend box office is a big as anticipated.
The initial Superboy legal squabble between the Siegel estate and Warner Bros and its subsidiary DC Comics stemmed from the character’s first appearance back in 1943. Siegel pitched DC the idea of a “comic concerning the exploits of Superman as a young man” back in 1938 says the Siegel’s 2007 lawsuit against Warner Bros and DC. DC rejected the pitch yet in the middle of World War II, when Siegel was overseas in the Army, the company printed a five-page Superboy story. Siegel contended this was done without his permission and without any notice. Consequently, there was litigation, deals and disputes over young Superman until the two sides came to an agreement in 1948 over Superboy. DC paid Siegel and co-creator Joe Shuster $94,000 to end all claims, which they did.
Over the following decades, DC had its copyright to Superman and Superboy extended on various occasions. A 1976 deal with the creators extended the copyright another 19 years but unlike past extensions the new Copyright Act allowed a termination clause that could take effect in 1999. In 1997, the Siegel estate gave WB/DC the termination notice. Warner Bros contested that notice and everything seemed to be worked out in a lucrative and comprehensive 2001 settlement agreement that heirs and DC came to. Then that fell apart and the Siegel estate went to the courts to reclaim the rights to Superman and Superboy and related properties.
In 2006, a federal judge granted the Siegels the right to Superboy retroactive to 2004. In a further blow to WB, Judge Stephen Larson in 2008 granted the Siegel estate the full copyright to Superman material first published in 1938. However, the victory was relatively short-lived. Over the last year, WB/DC have received a series of rulings that has affirmed the 2001 deal with the Siegels and given the studio the rights to Superman and today Superboy.
Still, during the legal battle, Warner Bros were very careful with Superboy even as they rebooted Superman in 2006 and, after scoring a legal victory in 2009, started production on Man of Steel in 2011. The legal entanglements have kept the studio walking a tightrope on using the term ‘Superboy’ and depictions of the character. The studio has tried various workarounds in the comics. Warner Bros also only released one season of the 1988-1992 syndicated Superboy TV series on DVD, around the time the legal writs started flying. The Siegel estate filed a lawsuit, now dead, in 2004 over the Smallville TV series, which is essentially the story of Superboy. (Smallville is embroiled in a separate legal mater of its own between its co-creators and WBTV.) Smallville never actually referred to a “Superboy” except for one offhand remark. Smallville ran first on the WB weblet and then on its successor CW from 2001 to 2011. Now that caution can end and Warner Bros can put a cape back on the young Man of Steel and leap more box office in a single bound.