Superman co-creator's heirs take big hit in legal battle with DC

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Dec 17, 2012, 4:24 PM EST

When we last looked in on the lengthy legal battle Warner Bros. and DC Comics are waging against the heirs of Superman co-creator's Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, we found the Siegel heirs vowing to fight on, no matter what. The Shuster heirs were fighting on too, but a major new ruling in the case may have just ended their battle.

District Court Judge Otis Wright ruled Wednesday that the family of Shuster have no grounds to reclaim their copyright to the Man of Steel, arguing that a 1992 agreement with DC Comics supersedes their claim. That ruling essentially invalidates the Siegel family's claim to the rights too (because they can't completely control the character rights without the Shuster half), though the Siegel is entitled to receive a portion of the returns on all Superman products. Their case with DC to determine just how much they'll get heads to court in November.

But for now, the Shuster ruling is the big news, and it's a major blow to the family's claim that the rights to Superman should revert back to the creators under a 1976 copyright law revision that allows creators and their heirs to terminate copyright grants made before Jan. 1, 1978. If the families were granted this termination, it would mean that DC Comics and Warner Bros. would have to seek permission from, and likely strike deals with, the creators' estates if they wanted to continue to use the character in comics, action figures lines, TV series and, of course, movies. But thanks to this ruling, they won't have to.

Judge Wright's ruling in the case refers back to a 1992 agreement between DC Comics and Shuster's sister Jean Peavy. Peavy and her brother Frank went to DC shortly after Shuster's death in an effort to cover Shuster's outstanding debt, and walked way with a deal for $25,000 a year for life. According to Wright, then-DC vice president Paul Levitz even took the time to warn the family back in '92 that the agreement "would fully resolve any past, present or future claims against DC," since it basically constituted an exchange of money for copyright.

Wright's ruling is that Levitz was right on the money with that argument. The judge wrote that the '92 agreement "unmistakably operates to supersede all prior grants" in the case, and he also asserts that Peavy and her brother "were aware of the Copyright Act's termination rights when they bargained for and entered into the 1992 agreement."

"By taking advantage of this opportunity, she exhausted the single opportunity provided by statute to the Shuster heirs to revisit the terms of Shuster's original grants of his copyrights," Wright wrote.

But in spite of all that, Peavy's son Mark filed a copyright termination with DC back in 2003, and launched the legal wrangling all over again. The Shuster family's attorney, Marc Toberoff (who also represents the Siegel family), argued that the 1992 agreement could not serve to invalidate the family's copyright claim because DC owned the rights at the time the agreement was made (the rights can only change hands when it's time to renew them). He also argued that, since the 1976 copyright laws only allowed a spouse, child or grandchild to file for termination at the time of the 1992 agreement (the law has since been revised to include other heirs), Peavy and her brother could not legally bargain for Superman's rights since, under contemporary law, they had no claim to them. In a brief filed in the case, he dismisses the idea that the '92 agreement could even compare to the previous copyright agreements in the case.

"In 1992, for unknown reasons, DC decided, in raising a small pension (to Peavy and her brother), to tear up its venerated pre-1978 Superman grants and replace them with an 'ephemeral' one-paragraph quitclaim," he wrote. "It further asks this Court to believe that this boilerplate silently worked to (i) revoke all of Shuster's copyright grants, (ii) give those copyrights to his siblings and (iii) regrant those copyrights back to DC."

Toberoff and the Shuster family will likely appeal the decision. For now, though, DC and Warners have the Superman rights well in hand, and the release of things like Man of Steel will go off uncontested.

What do you think? Did the judge make the right decision in the case?

(Via Variety)