The high-profile “copyright termination” dispute over Superman—arguably the most famous comic character of all time—is finally over. DC Comics defeated the heirs of artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined (PDF) to hear the petition filed by the heirs’ lawyers. That leaves standing a ruling from the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and the heirs won’t be allowed to wrest the copyright away.
The litigants in the case included Shuster’s sister, Jean Peavy, as well as Siegel’s daughter Laura Siegel Larson. They lost their case in Los Angeles federal court in 2012, and lost again on appeal.
Copyright law was changed in 1978 to allow authors to “terminate” copyrights after 35 years, essentially allowing them to “undo” contracts they had signed long ago and regain ownership of intellectual property they had earlier sold. But in the case of Superman, a federal judge found that deals that family members struck with DC Comics in 1992 superseded their termination rights.
The legendary story that Shuster and Siegel initially sold the rights to Superman for just $130 in 1938 is true, but it isn’t the whole story. The creators of Superman became wealthy. In 1941, the Saturday Evening Post reported that the duo stood to make more than $2 million in royalties, in today’s dollars.
They first sued DC Comics in 1947, reaching a settlement the following year. In 1975, they signed another deal with DC Comics providing annual payments of $80,000 for life, survivor payments for heirs, medical benefits, and credits on new Superman works.
After Shuster died in 1992, DC Comics paid his sister $25,000 per year, plus bonuses, even while stating its position that it had no legal obligation to make the payments, which ultimately added up to more than $600,000. In 2003, her son moved to terminate the Superman copyright.
The check that included the $130 payment, pictured below, sold at auction for $160,000 in 2012.
Chief Justice John Roberts didn’t take part in yesterday’s vote. His most recent financial disclosure indicates he owns between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of stock in Time Warner, which is the parent company of DC Comics.