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The Rights Stuff: 5 Copyrights and the People Who Sold Them

Creating a commercially successful song, character, or concept is a good route to fabulous wealth. If you’re not careful with your creation’s rights, though, you can end up pocketing just pennies from a million-dollar idea. Let’s take a look at a few instances where somebody got a bargain while someone else got shortchanged or flat-out fleeced.

1. Man of Steel’s Creators Get Shortchanged

While Batman and Spider-Man have their supporters, Superman might be comics’ most iconic hero. Whoever invented the Man of Steel must be rolling in cash, right? Not even close.

Cleveland high school buddies Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created an early version of Superman – a bald mad scientist who actually sounds a lot more like Lex Luthor – in 1934. The idea was hardly an instant success; it took four years and a serious overhaul of the character before Siegel and Shuster got a publisher to bite.

The boys may have been creative geniuses, but they were lousy businessmen. In March 1938 they signed all of the Superman character’s rights over to DC Comics for $130 cash.

After Superman became America’s favorite hero, Siegel and Shuster unsuccessfully sued to recover the character’s rights. According to Siegel’s 1996 New York Times obituary, both men were broke working menial jobs, Siegel as a typist who pulled in $7,000 a year and Shuster as a messenger.

DC Comics held firm about not cutting the men in on the billion-dollar Superman empire for four decades. The public outcry to recognize Siegel and Shuster for their work crested in 1978 after the first Superman flick grossed over $80 million. DC finally relented and gave each man a $20,000-a-year annuity and a byline in the comic.

2. The Defense Calls Grimace to the Stand

Fans of Sid and Marty Krofft’s show H.R. Pufnstuf probably noticed that McDonald’s old McDonaldland ad campaign was, ahem, fairly similar in feel to the show. As it turns out, McDonald’s ad agency, Needham Harper & Steers, had originally approached the Kroffts in 1970 about designing a Pufnstuf-type campaign for the restaurant. According to Hal Erickson’s book Sid and Marty Krofft, the ad men asked the Kroffts some pretty specific questions about their creative and technical processes, right down to what fabrics they used and how they got the characters’ mouths to move.

The Kroffts thought they had a deal, but McDonald’s nixed the campaign. Then, in 1971, the restaurant debuted the McDonaldland commercials that blatantly ripped off the Kroffts’ technology and feel. The Kroffts would later learn that the ad agency had only met with them in order to pick their brains on technical details. Heck, Mayor McCheese even bore an uncanny resemblance to H.R. Pufnstuf, who happened to be the mayor of Living Island.

The Kroffts sued McDonald’s for ripping off their idea and technology, and the legal battle stretched until 1977. (Among the best arguments in legal history: Mayor McCheese was clearly not a ripoff of H.R. Pufnstuf because of his formal attire and diplomat’s sash. Pufnstuf displayed his mayoral credential on a cumberbund.) In the end, the Kroffts won $50,000, and according to Erickson’s book, “have regularly collected checks from McDonald’s, while the hamburger people have done their best to keep the particulars of the case out of the public’s earshot.”

3. Lassie Repeatedly Comes Home as a Bargain

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, a border collie named Pal played the role of Lassie in a series of films for MGM, and his male descendants would go on to fill the Lassie role on TV and in future movies. How’s this for a bargain? Pal’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, paid $10 for Pal in 1941 when the collie was still a pup with a barking problem.

Shelling out 10 bucks for a movie star dog seems like a steal, but it was actually only the first huge windfall Weatherwax made on Lassie. MGM decided to abandon the Lassie franchise in 1951, but the studio still owed Weatherwax and Pal $40,000 in back pay. The two sides worked out a deal where Weatherwax would forgive MGM’s debt in exchange for the rights to the Lassie name and trademark.

MGM must have thought it was getting a bargain by foisting the dead franchise off on Weatherwax. The savvy trainer quickly sold the rights to TV producer Robert Maxwell, and the Lassie TV series ran for nearly 600 episodes after its 1954 debut.

4. The Lion Sleeps Very Cheaply Tonight

Most listeners know “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a chart-topping 1961 hit by the Tokens. The song is actually much older, though. South African songwriter Solomon Linda penned the tune, which was originally called “Mbube,” in 1939. Linda and his group, the Original Evening Birds, recorded the track and moved 100,000 copies in Africa.

The song’s success didn’t turn Linda into a wealthy songwriter, though. He and his family were still stuck living in a dirt-floored house. In 1952 Linda sold the copyright to his tune to Gallo Records for 10 shillings and a job sweeping the floors at one of the company’s warehouses. (That’s about 87 cents for a smash-hit song.) Linda died 10 years later with the modern equivalent of $22 in the bank.

Folowing Linda’s death, his surviving children began fighting to get a fair cut of the estimated $15 million the song has made. In 2006, after years of legal wrangling, Linda’s heirs reached an undisclosed settlement with Abilene Music, the company that had been administering the song’s U.S. copyright.

5. The Phillies Strike Out With the Phanatic

It’s not always the creators of an idea who end up on the wrong end of a bargain. In 1978 the Philadelphia Phillies debuted their beloved Phillie Phanatic mascot. The New York firm Harrison/Erickson had designed the big green fella, and they gave the Phillies two options for paying for the creation. The costume would set the team back $3,900. For an extra $1,300, though, the team could also buy the character’s copyright.

The Phillies didn’t realize the Phanatic would become such a hot property, so they decided to save a few bucks by just buying the costume. Big mistake. When the team’s new owners finally pulled the trigger on buying the Phanatic’s rights five years later, the price tag had gone up to $250,000.

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