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Warner Bros. has again prevailed in the test-of-endurance battle involving Superman rights. On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision that the family of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel transferred rights to Superman in 2001.
As a panel of circuit judges notes, the decision marks the latest in “long-running litigation stemming from the 1938 transfer of the Superman copyright” by Siegel and his colleague Joseph Shuster when they were both struggling comic book creators.
At the turn of the century, the heirs of Siegel and Shuster attempted to exploit the “termination” provision of the 1976 Copyright Act to grab back rights, and what’s resulted is a never-ending battle with judicial opinions getting shorter and shorter — probably a sign of legal fatigue.
In 2001, Warner Bros. subsidiary DC Comics believed it had a settlement with Siegel’s widow but complications ensued. Two years ago, the 9th Circuit ruled there was an enforceable contract back in 2001.
The case then went back to a district court, where there were further contentions that the settlement agreement hadn’t assigned rights, and even if it had, it couldn’t have transferred the copyrights to Superboy and early Superman promotions because when the widow accepted an offer via letter, the Siegels hadn’t yet terminated those rights.
On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit said it really doesn’t matter, that Congress authorized a “re-grant of copyrights by contract in lieu of statutory termination,” that the Siegels “bargained with their statutory termination power in hand to negotiate a highly remunerative new agreement.”
The appeals court also won’t let the Siegels try to rescind the 2001 agreement, noting the argument is now just coming up, the widow has died and there would be too much prejudice to DC to go down that road now. Separately, the 9th Circuit won’t go into a decision much earlier in this case that the Superman works were made for hire, and thus, not eligible to be terminated in the first place. Warners, represented by Daniel Petrocelli at O’Melveny & Myers, attempted to revisit that one.
We’d call it over, except this case is never over, and if it’s appealed to the Supreme Court, the mighty high court may get a choice this year: Batman v. Superman.
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