This is great news. The heirs of Jerome Siegel (1914-1996) — who in 1938 created Superman along with artist Joseph Shuster (1914-1992) — have been granted the rights to the material published that year in Action Comics #1, the first appearance of the character, ie. the material they created free of any contract, before they sold it to the publisher, DC Comics. Their copyright interest in the character, however, will only be applied from 1999 onwards and will only apply to domestic use of the character. What exact apportionment they will be accorded remains to be seen, as does the Shuster estate’s possible claim for copyright interest. Jeff Trexler has a nice summary up, as well as a helpful FAQ, plus he’s posted the the ruling itself.
The depressing thing is that this happens more than a decade after Siegel’s death, and more than a decade-and-a half-after Shuster’s. However much they through a combination of youthful naivité, and later, indignant impulsiveness, played in both the loss of the rights to their creation and the subsequent lack of compensation from the publisher, their treatment by DC Comics remains a disgrace. A blemish on the industry, indicative of an injust system that has only grudgingly come to recognise creator’s rights over the last few decades, and still operates primarily through work-for-hire contracts that would seem archaic in other, comparable countries. It is testament to this state of affairs, that this case is far from over. Time Warner will probably appeal, and even if they lose, the extent to which they will now have to share the profits they make on the character remains very unclear. Still, at least a step in the right direction.
Image culled from the ruling, reproducing one of the first designs for Clark Kent and Superman, by Joe Shuster.