The history of comic books is plagued by notable instances of creators being excluded from the market value of their work. This tradition dates back to the creation of Superman, a character who was so successful that his exploits essentially led to the development of the modern comic book industry. Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sold the rights to the character to D.C. Comics in 1938 for a mere $130 before Superman ever appeared in print. Nobody at the time could have known how popular Superman would become or that a media empire would be built around him that would survive more than eighty years later. More than thirty years after they sold Superman, long after the character had become a household name, Siegel and Shuster were “nearly destitute and worried about how they will support themselves in their old age.” In 1975, as a result of the bad publicity caused by the plight of Superman’s creators, D.C. began paying the duo “modest annual payments.”
Despite those payments, the notorious story of Siegel and Shuster, along with other creators who did not share in the wealth derived from their works, disincentivized later comic book creators from developing innovative new works. “I knew I wouldn’t own any of it,” Roy Thomas, a prolific writer for Marvel in the 1970s, said of his work. “I accepted the work for hire, and as a result, I didn’t want to create characters that much because I knew I would get resentful if they ever made movies and TV shows and merchandising out of it that I didn’t get money and credit for.”
Yet one of the central purposes of copyright law—of allowing an individual to have a creative and financial monopoly on their own artistic expression—is to incentivize creativity and new ideas by rewarding those who develop them. The kinds of private contracts used in the comic industry have led to exactly the opposite result.