National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications

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National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications
US-CourtOfAppeals-2ndCircuit-Seal.png
Court United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Full case name National Comics Publications, Inc. v. Fawcett Publications, Inc.
Argued May 4 1951
Decided August 30 1951
Citation(s) 191 F.2d 594 (2d Cir. 1951)
Case history
Prior action(s) Complaint dismissed, 93 F. Supp. 349
Subsequent action(s) Clarified, 198 F.2d 927 (2d Cir. 1952)
Holding
An author does not forfeit his original copyright to a piece of intellectual property if his work is contracted to another who fails to properly copyright works which incorporate the original property. Fawcett Publications' Captain Marvel comic strips were proven to have plagiarized those of National Comics' Superman character.
Court membership
Judge(s) sitting Circuit Judges Harrie B. Chase, Jerome Frank, Learned Hand
Case opinions
Majority Hand, joined by Chase, Frank
Laws applied
Copyright Act of 1909

National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications, 191 F.2d 594 (2d Cir. 1951), was a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a twelve-year legal battle between National Comics and the Fawcett Comics division of Fawcett Publications, concerning Fawcett's Captain Marvel character being an infringement on the copyright of DC's Superman comic book character. The litigation is notable as one of the longest running legal battles in comic book publication history.

The suit resulted in the dissolution of Fawcett Comics and the cancellation of all of its superhero-related publications, including those featuring Captain Marvel and his related characters. DC later acquired the rights to Captain Marvel in the 1970s.

History[edit]

Pre-trial[edit]

Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940), the first appearance of Captain Marvel. Cover art by C. C. Beck.

Captain Marvel was not the first superhero comic book character, or even the first Fawcett superhero character, to be the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit. In 1939, National Comics (then known as Detective Comics, Inc.; it did not use the name National until 1946) had filed suit against Fox Feature Syndicate for their Superman-like hero Wonder Man, and filed against Fawcett the following year for their Master Man character. In the case of Master Man, Fawcett simply did as Fox Features had done: they ceased publication of the character and replaced his feature in their Master Comics periodical with a new strip (Bulletman).

However, after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from National Comics in June 1941,[1] Fawcett decided to fight National's allegations that Captain Marvel, the star character of their Whiz Comics periodical, was an illegal copy of Superman. Captain Marvel had proven to be very successful for the company, and had, within two years of his existence, become its flagship comic book character and had been the first superhero to be adapted into film, in The Adventures of Captain Marvel. In fact, by the mid-1940s, Captain Marvel had become the most popular superhero in the country, his Captain Marvel Adventures was the nation's highest circulated comic book magazine (selling 1.4 million copies an issue), and Fawcett had created an entire family of spin-off characters: Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel, Uncle Marvel, and even Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. While its lawsuit against Fawcett was still pending, a few of the elements unique to the Captain Marvel strip found their way into Superman comics, including making Superman fly, Superman's arch-villain Lex Luthor a bald "mad scientist" like Captain Marvel's Dr. Sivana, and introducing the adventures of Superman as a teenager under the title Superboy, after Captain Marvel's teenaged sidekick Captain Marvel, Jr. proved to be popular. These may or may not have been deliberate, or even conscious decisions, for instance, it is generally acknowledged that the bald Lex Luthor was an artist's error, but the fact of the similarity remained.

Initial hearing[edit]

National filed suit against Fawcett in September 1941.[1] The lawsuit between National and Fawcett proceeded for seven years before trial finally began in 1948. National's argument was that Captain Marvel's main powers and characteristics (super-strength, super-speed, invulnerability, a skin-tight costume with a cape, and a news reporter alter ego) were derived directly from those of Superman.[2] Fawcett's counterargument was that although the two characters were indeed similar, and Superman's publication debut predated Captain Marvel's by eighteen months, the differences in essential plot and concept elements (Captain Marvel's alter-ego was a child, not an adult; his powers were magic-based, not science-based) meant that Captain Marvel was not an infringement of National's copyrighted character, but a property in its own right.

The trial was decided in Fawcett's favor because of information Fawcett's lawyers had uncovered about Superman's copyright status. The defense lawyers provided evidence that National Comics and the McClure Syndicate failed to copyright several of their Superman newspaper comic strips, and the trial judge decided that National had abandoned its Superman copyright such that it was no longer valid. The trial judge did find, however, that Captain Marvel was an illegal copy of National's Superman.[2]

Appeal[edit]

National appealed the decision in 1951 to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, with famed Judge Learned Hand presiding. Judge Hand's 1952 ruling in National's favor reversed a part of the trial court's decision. National's Superman copyright was held valid but the McClure strip was not under copyright, and the finding that Captain Marvel was an infringement of that copyright was affirmed. The case was then remanded to the trial court for damage assessment. Instead of appealing the Second Circuit's decision or going through the damage assessment on how much of an infrigment Captain Marvel was in district court, Fawcett decided to settle with National out of court.[2] Superhero comics sales had decreased dramatically during the early 1950s, and Fawcett decided that it was not worthwhile to continue fighting National.[2][3] National agreed to settle with Fawcett out of court, and Fawcett paid National $400,000 in damages and agreed to cease publication of all Captain Marvel-related comics.[dead link][4]

Results of the lawsuit[edit]

Shazam! #1 (February 1973), published by DC Comics. On the cover (a memorable symbol of the lawsuit's resolution), Superman cheerfully introduces the character once considered to be derivative of him. Cover art by C. C. Beck, Nick Cardy, and Murphy Anderson.

Fawcett Comics ended up cancelling all of its superhero comics, selling the reprint rights for Hoppy the Marvel Bunny to Charlton Comics, who re-lettered the artwork to identify the strip as Hoppy the Magic Bunny. The entire creative staff of the comic book division was laid off, including noted comic book creators such as C. C. Beck and Otto Binder, and the comics division was shut down. L. Miller and Son, a small British publisher of black-and-white Captain Marvel reprints, adapted Captain Marvel into a derivative superhero, Marvelman, instead of folding their comic book business. This character enjoyed similar popularity in the 1950s and was revived in the 1980s, and itself became the subject of a copyright and trademark dispute after the publisher of its North American reprints ceased operations.

Captain Marvel remained out of print for the rest of the 1950s and the entirety of the 1960s, a period during which superhero comics regained their popularity. In 1967 Marvel Comics trademarked a character of the same name for use in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, and a follow-up self-titled series, which created some difficulties when DC licensed the rights to all of Fawcett's superheroes in 1972, and revived Captain Marvel in a periodical entitled Shazam!. They also obtained reprint rights to the original Fawcett comic books, and began running older stories in their various reprint titles as well as Shazam! itself. However, the license agreement required a per-use fee for every appearance by a Fawcett character, which limited DC's willingness to use the characters, and as a result most of them appeared very rarely once the Shazam! series ended in 1978.

In 1980, DC bought the rights to the Fawcett characters outright, and in 1987 relaunched the character in a miniseries, Shazam!: The New Beginning. Captain Marvel has not proven to be a modern-day success for DC to the degree it had been for Fawcett, due in part to DC not being able to properly promote the character under the "Captain Marvel" name, which is a Marvel Comics trademark. As a result, when DC Comics rebooted its entire comic line under the New 52 initiative in 2011, Captain Marvel was renamed "Shazam" and reintroduced to comics the following year under that name.[5]

National v. Fawcett is still an often-referenced case in the areas of copyright law and plagiarism because of its readily-accessible subject matter, and the popularity of its author, Judge Hand, among legal scholars.

Superduperman vs. Captain Marbles[edit]

In Mad Issue 4, 1953, the story "Superduperman" was published. While it did not specifically reference the lawsuit, the story recounts the battle between Superduperman and "Captain Marbles", which ends in the defeat of Captain Marbles.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Hughes, Bob. DC Timeline. Retrieved on August 9, 2005.
  2. ^ a b c d Ingersoll, Bob, "The Law is a Ass" Installment # 66, World Famous Comics (Originally printed in Comics Buyer's Guide), archived from the original on 2000-10-24, retrieved 16 January 2014 
  3. ^ Gore, Matthew H. (June 24, 2001). The Origins of Marvelman. Wayback Machine. Retrieved January 16, 2014. Quote: "With avenues of appeal still open but their outcome obvious after the first court ruled for National Periodicals, Fawcett Publications settled out of court in late-1953. Fawcett agreed to cease publication of all Captain Marvel related titles. However, Fawcett's decision to give up the legal battle came when all of the company's superhero titles were reporting greatly diminished sales was no circumstance."
  4. ^ "The World's Mightiest Mortal & Big Red Cheese". The Museum of Comic Book Advertising. Retrieved June 17, 2005. Excerpt: "In 1953, the case was finally settled out of court when Fawcett agreed to quit using the Captain Marvel character(s) and pay DC the sum of $400,000."[dead link]
  5. ^ Rogers, Vaneta (January 26, 2012). "Exclusive: GEOFF JOHNS Hopes Lightning Strikes SHAZAM!". Newsarama.