Appeals court upholds Warner Bros.' Superman rights

A federal appeals court has again sided with DC Comics and Warner Bros. in the long-running feud over the rights to the Man of Steel.

As first reported by THR, Esq., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld a 2013 ruling that the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel relinquished their claim to the character in a 2001 settlement with DC, and therefore are not able to terminate the copyright.

This legal dispute has proved as resilient as the Man of Steel, so we won't label this a "definitive judgment." However, the Siegel family would appear to have few options left beyond a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now at least, Superman remains in the hands of Warner Bros. and DC.

At the heart of the decades-old fight is the 1938 transfer of copyright by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, and the termination provision of the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act that permits authors, their heirs or their estates to reclaim those rights. In 2001, DC made an offer to Siegel's widow Joanne Siegel that would permit the company to retain the rights to Superman (as well as Superboy and The Spectre) in exchange for $3 million in cash and contingent compensation worth tens of millions.

However, the Siegels' attorney later maintained the family never accepted the deal, opening the door for the heirs to terminate the original transfer of copyright, and claim a 50 percent stake in Superman and certain associated elements. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, ruling in 2013 that there was a contract in place.

The Shuster estate ran into a similar legal roadblock, as the courts determined in 2012 that they'd surrendered their ability to reclaim the artist's 50-percent stake in the property in a 1992 agreement with DC.

The Siegel case headed back to district court and then back to appeals, where the writer's daughter Laura Siegel Larson argued the 2001 letter didn't constitute an assignment of rights, and that DC had actually agreed to Joanne Siegel's subsequent 2002 letters rescinding the agreement. Joanne Siegel passed away in 2011.

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