The lawyer for the estate of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster asked a federal judge on Wednesday to reject DC Comics’ assertion that the artist’s relatives signed away all claims to the Man of Steel 20 years, saying the company would not have staked the ownership of “a billion-dollar property” on a one-page deal.
The hearing follows a tentative ruling last month by U.S. District Judge Otis Wright granting DC’s motion for partial summary judgment asking the court to enforce a 1992 agreement in which the estate relinquished all claims to the Man of Steel in exchange for “more than $600,000 and other benefits,” which included paying Shuster’s debts following his death earlier that year and providing his sister Jean Peavy with a $25,000 annual pension. The publisher argued that deal voids a copyright-termination notice filed in 2003 by Shuster’s nephew Mark Warren Peary to reclaim the artist’s portion of the rights to the first Superman story in Action Comics #1.
However, Law 360 reports that Marc Toberoff, the attorney representing the Shuster estate and the family of Jerry Siegel, insisted during Wednesday’s arguments that DC didn’t intend for the “ambiguous” 1992 document to transfer ownership of the copyright. “I submit that it’s impossible for this document to be the basis for Warner Bros. and DC’s chain of title to a billion-dollar property,” he said. “When they want someone to assign a copyright, they have an agreement this thick, and that agreement is filed with the Copyright Office to give the world constructive notice.”
Wright initially appeared skeptical, saying, “We have an agreement, promises made that we will never again pursue any future interest in Superman, promises repeated over and over again.” But Toberoff countered that for DC’s argument to hold weight, the judge would have to believe the 1992 deal revoked all previous copyright agreements with Shuster, dating back to 1938, and then re-granted the rights to the publisher.
“It defies credibility to suggest they’re going to throw away the chain of title they’ve relied on for years, that’s been upheld by two courts, and replace it with this ambiguous document,” Toberoff said. “If that was [DC’s] intention, they would have put it in the contract.”
“What you suggest is lunacy, so then it’s not the intention,” Wright replied, leading DC attorney Daniel Petrocelli to insist the intention was, indeed, to supersede all earlier agreements and to establish “new grants going forward.”
“I could see why [DC] would want to tear up a clear, unequivocal grant of copyright in 1938 for this ephemeral thing,” Wright retorted with what Law 360 described as “apparent sarcasm.” “That makes a lot of sense to me.”
The Siegel heirs reclaimed their portion of the rights in 2008 and 2009 under a provision of the U.S. Copyright Act, giving them partial control over the Man of Steel’s defining elements, including his costume, Lois Lane, his origin and secret identity, and paving the way for the Shuster estate to do the same in October 2013. DC is seeking to overturn that ruling, arguing that the court should enforce a deal abandoned in 2001 when the heirs were approached by Toberoff.