Superman's WB Future at Stake as Appeals Court Battle Begins
In advance of oral arguments, Warner Bros. files a 117-page brief in attempt to hold onto all rights to the famed superhero. The outcome will determine the future of the franchise, but in dueling legal briefs, the parties discuss the history.
On Friday, Warner Bros. made its move to hold onto all its rights on the Superman franchise. The studio filed a brief before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals explaining why the estate of co-creator Jerry Siegel shouldn't be allowed to execute a copyright termination notice on the property.
The subject of Superman rights has been intensely litigated over the past five years. In 2008, a federal judge in California handed Siegel's heirs a big victory by determining that the termination was valid, but not a complete victory as it only applied to the first editions of the Action Comics that first told Superman's story. The later works were deemed to be "work for hire."
This meant a potential split in the Superman universe. Siegel (and his co-author Joe Shuster) would reclaim many of Superman's defining characteristics, including his costume, Clark Kent and the origin story. But Warner (as successor to DC Comics) would retain other elements, including Lex Luthor and Kryptonite.
The Siegel estate appealed, allowing both parties to resubmit their big arguments to a higher authority.
On Friday, Warners took its turn by telling the court in a cross-appeal what happened after the Siegel estate sent its termination notice on Superman. According to the studio, the two sides had come to an agreement on "every essential term for a re-grant of rights" when in 2001, the estate was approached by an "intellectual property entrepreneur" -- attorney Marc Toberoff -- who dangled the prospect of more money. The Siegels fired their law firm at the time, hiring Toberoff, and allegedly contracting agent Ari Emanuel to sell Superman rights.
But Warners believes that when the Siegel family walked away from the negotiating table in 2001, a meeting of the minds had already taken place. "The family asserted there was no deal without a long form [contract], and the district court agreed, casting aside established California contract law principles—principles essential to the entertainment industry, where many business deals are never formalized," says the studio in its brief. "The rule there is simple, however: a deal is a deal, long form or not."
Warners asks that the 9th Circuit bring this long-running dispute to an end by enforcing the alleged 2001 deal.
The latest filing comes three months after Toberoff submitted his own brief before the 9th Circuit.