Heirs of “Superman” co-creator, Joe Shuster lose copyright battle with Warner Bros and DC Comics

The heirs of “Superman” co-creator, Joe Shuster, were not very happy yesterday when U.S. District Judge Otis Wright ruled that a 1992 agreement prevents the Shuster family from “exercising a portion of copyright law that allows authors to recapture their works,” according to “Variety.

The ruling means that DC Comics and its owner Warner Bros. will retain all rights to continue using the character in books, films, television and other mediums, including a the film reboot planned for next year.

Judge Wright wrote that, “the effort by Jean Peavy, the sister of Joseph Shuster, and her son, Mark Warren Peary, to exercise a so-called ‘termination right’ was superseded by a 1992 pact made shortly after Shuster’s death. In it, Peavy and her brother Frank signed a deal with DC Comics, a unit of Warner Bros., to cover Joseph Shuster’s debts and pay her $25,000 a year for the rest of her life. Wright noted in his opinion that DC’s then-executive vice president Paul Levitz admonished them that by taking the agreement, they ‘would fully resolve any past, present or future claims against DC.'”

Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel created Superman, who made his comic book debut in 1938 in Action Comics (hash)1. Both men battled for increased compensation for the superhero throughout their lives and Siegel’s heirs have also fought DC for a stake in copyrights to Superman.

Shuster’s heirs had argued that the copyright agreements could be terminated under provisions that allowed creators of works made before 1978 a mechanism to reclaim their rights. Despite their argument the heirs lose the copyright battle. Wright ruled that the decision by Shuster’s sister to accept higher annual payments created a new agreement and the pre-1978 rights no longer applied.

“We respectfully disagree with its factual and legal conclusions, and it is surprising given that the judge appeared to emphatically agree with our position at the summary judgment hearing,” the Shusters’ attorney Marc Toberoff wrote in a statement. He declined further comment, and Warner Bros. and its attorney Daniel Petrocelli also declined comment on the ruling.

Toberoff had argued that an agreement altering copyright interests would have been much longer than the one-page 1992 agreement between DC Comics and Shuster’s sister, Joan Shuster Peavy, and his brother, Frank.

Superman is one of Warner’s most valuable characters, having generated more than $500 million at the domestic box office with five films and billions of dollars more from television series such as “Smallville,” toys and games, and 74 years’ worth of comic books.

Had Warner and its DC Comics subsidiary lost the case, they would have soon been unable to continue using certain key elements of the Superman mythos — including his super strength and speed, secret identity as Clark Kent and girlfriend Lois Lane –without reaching a costly new agreement with the estates of Shuster and co-creator Jerry Siegel.

Obviously this ruling is good news for Warner Bros. and DC and their many corporate siblings, who utilize Superman in movies, TV, games, toys and myriad other merchandising.

In 2008, a judge ruled in favor of Siegel’s heirs in a similar case, allowing them to terminate half of Warner’s Superman copyright as he appeared in 1938’s Action Comics No. 1. However, under copyright law, the studio is allowed to use the character however it pleases with its 50% interest so long as it continues paying Siegel’s estate half of the relevant profits.

Warner plans to release a new big-budget Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” in June. Wednesday’s ruling will allow it to produce sequels should that picture prove successful. In addition, the studio has been eager to produce a movie featuring the DC superhero team Justice League as soon as 2015, which would have been impossible without lead character Superman.

The eight-year legal battle between the Superman creators’ heirs and Warner probably won’t end soon. The Shuster estate is expected to appeal Wednesday’s ruling.
At a Nov. 5 appeals court hearing, the studio will attempt to overturn the Siegels’ copyright termination and Toberoff will seek more control over the character for his clients and to deny accusations of impropriety that Warner has made against him.

The case is the latest and highest-stakes dispute between the creators of famous comic book characters and the entertainment giants making more money than ever from them as superheroes have exploded in popularity in the last decade. The heirs of Marvel Comics artist Jack Kirby, also represented by Toberoff, in 2011 lost in an attempt to reclaim rights to such famous characters as the Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Hulk.

In Wright’s ruling, he noted that DC has paid the Siegel and Shuster families more than $4 million since 1975, not counting medical benefits and bonuses.

In the 1930s, publishing bosses Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld paid a couple of young men $130 for the rights to Superman.

In April, the $412 check that DC Comics wrote to acquire Superman and other creative works by Shuster and Siegel sold for $160,000 in an online auction.

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