LOS ANGELES (CN) – Heirs to the co-creator of Superman cannot renegotiate copyrights for the Man of Steel, because they signed a binding agreement with DC Comics more than 20 years ago, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright on Wednesday granted DC Comic’s motion for partial summary judgment, finding that the 1992 agreement between the heirs of Joseph Shuster and DC comics “superseded and replaced all prior grants of the Superman copyrights,” and is “not subject to termination” under the Copyright Act.
Shuster created Superman with Jerome Siegel.
Variety reported this week that the ruling means that DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., does not need authorization from the co-creators’ estates to develop Superman projects.
In May 2010, DC Comics and Warner Bros. sued attorney Marc Toberoff, who claimed an interest in the continued exploitation of Superman, which Siegel and Shuster assigned to DC in 1938.
In that complaint, DC claims that Toberoff persuaded the Siegel and Shuster’s heirs to terminate their agreements with DC Comics and file copyright notices. The heirs then allegedly entered into a joint venture with Toberoff’s Pacific Pictures Corp., granting him a controlling stake in the heirs’ interest in the superhero character.
The 1992 agreement that Shuster’s sister, Jean Peavy, entered into with DC Comics, covered Shuster’s debts as well as a yearly payment of $25,000 per year for the rest of Peavy’s life, according to Judge Wright’s ruling.
The agreement reestablished DC’s rights in Superman and barred Jean, or Shuster’s brother Frank, from making future claims to those rights.
After Congress amended copyright law to grant heirs termination rights in 1999, the Seigel heirs sent the publisher a copyright termination notice.
In 2003, the Peavys’ son, Mark Warren Peavy, also served DC Comics with notice of termination.
But Judge Wright found that the 1992 agreement prevents the Shusters from terminating the grant of copyright, and trumps any earlier agreements with the publisher.
Wright rejected an attempt to frame the agreement as not including a grant of rights to Superman. He found that that the defendants should have known that the agreement included Shuster’s “most famous creation.”
“(O)nce a party seeks to supersede all prior agreements, that party need not specifically list every superseded agreement, lest that party forget one such agreement and thus leave open the door for subsequent disputes,” Wright wrote.
As well as benefiting financially from the 1992 agreement, Jean Peavy “exhausted the single opportunity provided by statute to the Shuster heirs to revisit the terms of Shuster’s original grants of his copyrights,” Wright ruled.
Shuster never terminated earlier grants of Superman copyrights before his death, and “by entering into the 1992 Agreement – which increased Frank and Jean’s payments – the heirs essentially struck a deal that binds all other heirs,” Wright said.
The court denied defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment.