Warner Brothers Granted Pivotal Copyright Interests in ‘Superman’

BY: AMY STEIN

A federal judge in California has granted the copyright interest in Superman to Warner Brothers. This a pivotal legal victory for Warner Brothers, as Superman is one of the most valuable characters in history, who has “generated more than $500 million at the domestic box office with five films and billions of dollars more from television series such as ‘Smallville,’ toys and games, and 74 years’ worth of comic books.”[1. Ben Fritz, Warner wins key victory in Superman battle, (October 17, 2012).] The heirs of the co-creator, Joseph Shuster claim a 50% interest in the property.

In 2008, a California court held that the interests in the property will revert to the heirs of the other co-creator, Jerome Siegel, using support from the 1999 amended copyright law, which “allows heirs to reclaim prior copyrights under certain conditions.”[2. Brooke Barners, Warner Brothers Wins Legal Case Over Rights to Superman, (October 17, 2012).]   The most recent presiding court held that those interests were relinquished due to an agreement Shuster’s heirs made with DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers.

In 1992, DC Comics contracted with Shuster’s sister, shortly after Shuster died. The agreement forfeited any Superman copyright claim by Shuster’s sister in return for the settlement of Shuster’s debts and payment of $25,000 a year for the rest of her life. The court held that the “1992 agreement, which represented the Shuster heirs’ opportunity to renegotiate the prior grants of Joe Shuster’s copyrights, superseded and replaced all prior grants of the Superman copyrights. The 1992 agreement thus represents the parties’ operative agreement and…is not subject to termination.”[3. Supra at Note 1.]  This agreement between DC and Shuster’s sister prohibited her from bring any claims against DC in regard to the copyrights.[4. Supra at Note 2.] Thus, the California Federal Court held that the 50% copyright interests do not belong to the heirs of the co-creator, Joseph Shuster.

This win is pivotal for Warner Brothers, because without the copyright interest, Warner Brothers would have lost the right to continue “using certain key elements of the Superman mythos — including his super strength and speed, secret identity as Clark Kent and girlfriend Lois Lane — without reaching a costly new agreement with the estates of Shuster and co-creator Jerry Siegel.”[5. Supra at Note 1.] The timing was imperative for Warner Brothers, who plans to release a new Superman movie next year.

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