Monday, March 11, 2013

Wants to Create Superman Coffee Table Book

Dear Rich: I am working on a Superman movie coffee table book that will be photo heavy and likely self-published. The photos come from my own collection, many of which were never seen by the public (and were not going to be used in publicity because they are production photos and not posed stills). I have run a website,, for many years. It is a favorite among fans, Superman director Richard Donner, the late Christopher Reeve, and many stars of the Superman movies. Warner Bros. has even bought photos from me for their DVD art. I am told that I have more photos than Warner’s does in their vaults! My question is, do I need to get permission from Warner Bros. to publish these ultra rare photos? I don’t need anything material wise from WB since it’s all in my archives. The photos were shot by various set photographers between early 1977 and the end of 1978. Somebody owns the copyright in the photos and we're guessing that it's Warner Brothers/DC Comics who acquired rights from whoever employed the set photographers. Even though WB paid you for access to your collection, they're probably the ones from whom you would need permission.
What about the Superman trademark? Besides copyright, Warner Brothers can hassle you if you're using trademarks to confuse fans into thinking that your book comes from or is endorsed by WB. One way to limit that claim is with appropriate disclaimers. In 1998, a publisher offered a Godzilla filmography book that included a brief disclaimer on the back cover. Toho, the company that owned rights to Godzilla, sued and won. According to the court, an appropriate disclaimer would have been: “The publication has not been prepared, approved, or licensed by any entity that created or produced the original Toho Godzilla films,” and the disclaimer would be printed on the front cover and spine of the book in a distinguishing color or typestyle. (Toho Inc. v. William Morrow  (C.D. Cal. 1998).) In other words, to avoid trademark hassles, make your disclaimers clear and prominent.
The year copyright law changed. By the way, copyright law changed on January 1, 1978. Photos  after that date are subject to the new law, the Copyright Act of 1976, and photos before that date are subject to the old one, the 1909 Act. That shouldn't make much difference unless the set photographers were independent contractors and not employees (this article explains the differences).
For Your FYI Dept. If you go ahead without permission, we'd suggest offering it as a print-on-demand title. That way, if challenged, you can halt production without destroying inventory (often a request in copyright infringement lawsuits).

No comments: