Warner Bros. Gets Another Advantage in Lingering Superman Rights Fight


Sometimes, nostalgia will get you but so far. Bryan Singer's 2006 movie exists in the shadow of the Richard Donner films to such an extent that he uses John Williams' grand theme, Marlon Brando's voice as Jor-El, and Lex Luthor's same big plan (a land scheme). Which is too bad, because Brandon Routh is actually pretty endearing as Superman ... when he's not coming off a little too stalkery.

The heirs of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster got some bad news on Tuesday when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals voted not to hold a rehearing in a dispute that challenged Warner Bros.' grip on the Superman franchise.

But contrary to news reports out there, this isn't quite the end to a dispute that stretches back decades in many guises.

Shuster and co-creator Jerry Siegel famously handed over rights to their comic book creation in the 1930s when the artists were struggling financially. Within a decade, as their contract neared an end, the two sued over rights to the character. A settlement was made.

PHOTOS: Superman Turns 75

There would be more legal fussing over the years, but things got as hot as Krypton when attorney Marc Toberoff stood up about a decade ago on behalf of the heirs in an attempt to exploit a provision of the Copyright Act that allows a copyright grant to be terminated.

Unfortunately for Toberoff, the 9th Circuit eventually concluded that deals made by Shuster's and Siegel's heirs precluded the estates' termination attempts.

For Shuster, it was a 1992 agreement made by his sister Jean Peavy. In that deal, DC paid Shuster's final debts and increased survivor benefits. In return, Peavy gave up future claims against DC.

In October 2012, the 9th Circuit said the Shuster heirs were aware of their potential termination rights "when they bargained for and entered into the 1992 Agreement."

Today, the appellate circuit confirmed they wouldn't readdress this one. Warner Bros. has sewn up 50 percent of Superman rights, which will give it confidence exploiting the franchise in coming works like Superman vs. Batman.

Then there is the Siegel case.

In January, 2013, the 9th Circuit pointed to a deal that the Siegel family had made in 2001, shortly before hiring Toberoff. The Siegel side denied there was a firm agreement, but the appellate judges held as a matter of law that a Oct. 19, 2001 letter sent from the estate's former lawyer constituted an acceptance of an offer.

That didn't end matters, though, because the case was remanded back to a trial judge to figure out what that meant.

The Siegels argued that DC didn't perform under the contract and anticipatorily breached it by instead demanding new and revised terms. They further contended that the Siegels rescinded the agreement, and DC abandoned the agreement.

Last March, a federal judge rejected this argument.

"The Siegels’ breach and repudiation defenses do not affect the enforceability of the agreement, but rather constitute grounds for termination or a breach-of-contract action," wrote the judge.

So the Siegels may have another avenue towards future litigation, but in the meantime, there's still an appeal pending on that May ruling concerning whether a valid copyright transfer was made. The Siegels are presently scheduled to file a brief in February. Warner Bros. gets to respond the following month. And so on.

If the Siegels win, they won't be able to stop Superman vs. Batman, but they could be due a big chunk of money from it. And there would be the possibility that recapturing half of the copyright could give them the authority to non-exclusively license  Superman rights to others. Of course, the Siegels still face incredibly long odds to change the tide of recent court opinions. And the scope of anything recaptured would be limited to whatever was in early Superman comics. Needless to say, though, the Superman heirs copyright suit has not truly leaped its final bound.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner