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Warner Bros. Wins Decisive Victory in Superman Copyright Case

From The Hollywood Reporter comes news that a court of appeals has made a decision that will likely empower DC Comics and its parent company Warner Bros. to retain control of the Superman franchise without legal challenge from the heirs of original creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday that a 2008 decision by a federal judge to grant the heirs of Jerry Siegel to reclaim half the copyright of Superman was wrongful, determining that a binding deal between the Siegel heirs and DC had been struck in 2001.Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their Superman creation to Detective Comics, Inc. in 1938 for the sum of $130. Their character would of course go on to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all mediums and generate millions upon millions of dollars in sales of comic books, movie tickets and other countless forms of merchandise (the last Superman film — Superman Returns — made nearly $400 million dollars worldwide). In the years subsequent, Siegel and Shuster would attempt to regain via the courts some kind of ownership of Superman and a more equitable share in the enormous profits generated by Superman comic books as well as DC’s exploitation of the character in the broader marketplace. The pair were at first unsuccessful and found themselves fired, unrecognized for their creation and consequently destitute (Shuster is alleged in comics historian Craig Yoe’s book, Secret Identity, to have illustrated a series of underground fetish comics just to make ends meet). Additional lawsuits, settlements and copyright extensions followed in the decades hence. Those proceedings have been protracted and sometimes arcane, but Siegel and Shuster’s names were eventually restored to the credits pages of all Superman comics and deals were made for pensions and other compensations for their heirs.

Today’s appeals court’s decision invalidating a lower court’s ruling that the Siegels could recapture half of the Superman copyright follows a federal judge’s ruling in October that denied the heirs of Joe Shuster to recapture his half of the same. In that case, a 1992 agreement saw DC Comics settle debts left following Shuster’s death and increase and transfer to his estate an annual pension in exchange for relinquishing any termination rights to DC’s ownership of all of Shuster’s co-creations for the company. Attorney Marc Toberoff — who also represents the Siegels as well as the heirs of Jack Kirby, who recently lost their copyright reclamation case with Marvel — argued that a deal made in 1992 between DC Comics and Shuster’s sister Jean Peavy was invalid. Judge Otis D. Wright disagreed, issuing an 18 page ruling that said the plaintiffs “have offered no evidence in support of” their claim, and affirmed the legality of the original 1992 deal.

We’re communicating with our legal consultant on this matter and we will update this story as more information becomes available. But at the moment it would seem that after years of litigation, these two decisions leave the estates of the Superman creators with few options but to live with the terms of previous agreements, and DC Comics with unfettered authority over the entire Superman enterprise going forward.

Via The Beat, here is the 9th Circuit’s opinion:

11-55863_opinion by Jeff Trexler

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