Shusters Hope To Follow Kirby Estate To Supreme Court To Contest Superman Rights
The United States Supreme Court wrapped up its 2014 term Monday, deciding cases involving health care, unions, and other pressing issues. If two comic creators’ families get their way, the court’s next term could involve the fate of some of the most popular comics characters ever created.
First, the family of Jack Kirby filed paperwork to ask the Supreme Court to consider whether they have any rights to the characters Kirby co-created at Marvel Comics in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Now, the family of Joe Shuster, who co-created Superman with writer Jerry Siegel at DC, has essentially done the same.
The question of the Siegels’ suit is slightly different from the Kirbys’ suit. This isn’t a question of whether Shuster was performing his duties under a work-for-hire agreement. This is about whether Shuster’s brother, Frank, and sister, Jean, relinquished rights to Superman in 1992 in exchange for a $25,000-per-year pension and the payment of debts. According to the Shuster family’s suit, Jean and Frank didn’t have any rights to relinquish in the first place. At that time, copyrights didn’t apply to siblings; only children, grandchildren and spouses. (That changed in 1998.)
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled back in November that the family’s argument didn’t hold water, though one of the judges on the bench supported the family’s case in a dissenting opinion. That left the Shusters with no recourse but to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The family’s petition states, “The court of appeals’ decisions cast a pall over the ownership of billions of dollars in copyrights.”
If the Supreme Court decides to take on either of the comics-related cases being brought before it, the Kirbys and the Shusters would likely face an uphill struggle — but there are a lot of cases the court simply doesn’t take on, in which case the lower courts’ rulings stand. The current Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to the rights of corporations, often at the cost of individuals, which may be good news for Disney and Warner Bros.
Of course, the Supreme Court has never been completely predictable, and the dissenting opinion from the appeals court indicates the Shusters may have a case.