As some of you may know, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 is fondly known as the “Mickey Mouse Law” because it preserves Disney’s Mickey Mouse copyright for another 20 years. We’ll see what happens to Mickey Mouse in 2018, but it turns out that Superman will beat him there first because the initial copyright is about to revert to the Shuster and Siegel families instead of DC Comics.
This story from Blastr describes the complex relationship though. The families will get some of the modern Superman, including his basic costume and basic superpowers and Krypton, but not the latter additions to the cannon (e.g. no Kryptonite, Supergirl, Lex Luthor). In fact, I’ll be curious about the logo, because it did a get a little tweak between 1939 and the George Reeves era. The reversion will also only apply to the U.S.
The truth is that DC Comics will have plenty to work with, although they are rebooting Superman’s costume (just in case), so Superman will live on to fight another day. However, it does point to a fascinating legal landscape that we are about the face. Sooner or later, even Mickey Mouse will start to come into public domain as will Superman, Spider-Man and other iconic characters.
Although it’s clear that corporations will have the upper hand for a while since only small portions of each character will leak into the public domain, it will be interesting to see if they maintain the advantage. Fair Use already allows people to use these characters in a satiric way or as part of social commentary, but fans would love to see genuine new adventures in new combinations (maybe a Superman/Mickey Mouse crossover epic).
It’s also extremely fascinating from a folkloric perspective. We think of modern “mythologies” as being unified narratives, but they are built up in pieces over time, just as ancient mythologies were. Now we will all get to appreciate the pieces of the legend. If Superman survives beyond this era, I am confident he won’t really be the property of DC Comics anymore.