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-Spencer L. Simons, former Director, O'Quinn Law Library and Associate Professor of Law

Monday, May 6, 2013

Who Owns Superman?

Superman, the Man of Steel, was born in 1938, and has been involved in copyright litigation almost as long.  Mr. Mxyzptlk himself could not have created as convoluted a history of a copyright dispute as the one that involved the rights to the Superman property. 

The Superman character was the brain-child of Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster. Their idea, an alien comes to Earth and has super-powers was a new one at the time.  These two Brainiacs sold the exclusive world-wide rights to Superman to Detective Comics (“DC”) for $130.00 and took employment with DC. Superman debuted in the comic-book format in Action Comics #1. He was an instant hit.

Siegel and Shuster filed their first lawsuit against DC in 1947 alleging that DC was not paying them their fair share of the profits that DC was reaping from the superhero. After trial the “official referee” found that DC had paid valuable consideration for the rights to Superman and the agreement was valid. Soon after the decision came down the parties agreed to a payment to be made to Siegel and Shuster. 

In 1969 Siegel and Shuster again filed suit in anticipation of the expiration of the initial copyright term. They were asserting that they, and not DC, were the owners of the renewal rights to the Superman copyright. In what can hardly be considered a Bizarro ruling, the court once again ruled against Siegel and Shuster stating that the initial grant of rights included the right to the renewal term even though that term had not yet vested. 

In 1975 an article appeared in the New York Times detailing the poverty that Siegel and Shuster were then living in. Not wanting to be portrayed as a company of Lex Luthors, Warner Communications (parent of DC comics) agreed to pay health insurance for both men and to make annual payments to them for the remainder of their lives and that these payments would cease if either Siegel and/or Shuster or their representatives asserted any rights to the Superman copyright. In addition, provision was made for Siegel’s wife.  Warner emphasized that this agreement was voluntary and in consideration for the duo’s past service and present circumstances. Warner later increased the payments and on two occasions paid both men bonuses. In 1985 Warner changed the agreement so that they would pay Siegel’s wife the same benefits they were paying her husband if he predeceased her. Siegel died in 1996 and Warner continued to pay his widow.

The Copyright Act of 1976 changed copyright law in many ways, including extending the copyright term for renewal period and also providing a right to terminate a prior grant of rights made before January 1, 1978 in order to renegotiate these agreements. In 1997 the heirs of Siegel and Shuster filed for termination of all previous agreements (the 1938, 1948, the 1975 agreements). Negotiations continued even after the terminations were to have taken effect in 1999. A proposed settlement in the form of a letter dated October 19, 2001 was passed back and forth and the terms were agreed to, but there was trouble when attempts were made to reduce formalize the final agreement. The heirs asserted that Warner Communications was the equivalent of Darkseid, the heirs fired several sets of lawyers, and the settlement letter was repudiated, and it appeared that no settlement was reached. 

Another lawsuit was filed in 2004. This litigation found the 2001 settlement letter to be non-binding  and the terminations of the prior agreements were valid. This opinion was overturned on appeal.  Further termination notices were sent in 2012 and another lawsuit was filed.

 April 18, 2013 was the Doomsday of the ongoing disputes. In the words of U.S. District Court judge Otis D. Wright II this “litigation of superhero proportions now draws to a close.”  Judge Wright found the October 2001 letter agreement binding on the parties. Under this interpretation, after the filing of the 1997 terminations, the parties negotiated a settlement in which DC was granted all of the Siegel’s rights to all Superman properties. 

Is this really the end?  Judge Wright ends his opinion stating that “to the extent that any party contends any delay in performance or other breach gives rise to any damages, such a claim is properly subject to a separate state-court action for breach of contract.” It almost seems that, like a comic book, we may have to wait for next month’s issue to come out to see how it ends.

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