DC Comics Wins Superman Creator Heirs’ Copyright Challenge

By Joseph Mandour on October 18, 2012

superman Los Angeles – DC Comics prevailed on Wednesday in its quest to maintain the copyright to the character of Superman over the objections of the heirs of Superman co-creator and original illustrator Joe Shuster, as a Los Angeles federal judge granted it partial summary judgment on the heirs’ claims.

DC filed a complaint in May 2010 to secure its claimed interest in the Superman copyrights after Shuster’s heirs served the comic book company with a copyright termination notice purporting to recapture certain early Superman works as of October 2013.

Judge Otis D. Wright II ruled in favor of DC on its claims contesting the validity of the termination notice and the web of agreements that the heirs’ attorney Marc Toberoff and his various entertainment companies and business partners engineered in alleged violation of DC’s rights.

A 1992 agreement between the parties, which represented the Shuster heirs’ opportunity to renegotiate the prior grants of Shuster’s copyrights, superseded and replaced all prior grants of the Superman copyrights, Judge Wright said. The 1992 agreement thus represents the parties’ operative agreement and is not subject to termination, he said.

The Copyright Act provides a termination right for the prior grant of a copyright transfer or license only if the grant was made prior to Jan. 1, 1978, the judge noted.

Although the heirs may have believed that their various contracts transferred the Shuster heirs’ termination rights, those agreements did not and could not have done so, according to the judge.

The heirs do not dispute that they entered into multiple agreements purporting to grant and otherwise encumber rights covered by a grant meant to be terminated, and actually agree that those agreements are void insofar as they aim to transfer the subject copyrights, the judge said.

Those agreements run afoul of the Copyright Act as well and are accordingly invalid, Judge Wright ruled.

Four years ago, another California federal judge ruled that a similar termination notice from the estate of Jerry Siegel, Superman’s other co-creator, is valid. That ruling held that Siegel’s heirs could recapture the copyrights to certain of Superman’ characteristics, but not all. DC has appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit.

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