The U.S. Supreme Court this morning declined to intervene in the copyright dispute between the Joe Shuster Estate and DC Comics, effectively ending the long, and frequently bitter, battle over who owns Superman.
By denying the estate's petition, the justices let stand a November 2013 ruling by the Ninth Circuit that Shuster's nephew is prevented by a 1992 agreement with DC from reclaiming the artist's stake in the first Superman story under a clause of the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act.
At issue was a now 22-year-old deal in which the Shuster estate relinquished all claims to the property 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 and brother Frank Shuster with a $25,000 annual pension. In October 2012, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright found that the agreement invalidated a copyright-termination notice filed in 2003 by Shuster’s nephew Mark Peary. Less than three months later, the Ninth Circuit overturned a 2008 decision granting the heirs of Jerry Siegel the writer’s 50-percent share of the copyright to the first Superman story in Action Comics #1.
There was a lot at stake for DC and its parent company Warner Bros.: Had the Siegel heirs and Shuster estate been successful in recapturing the copyright to the story in Action Comics #1, the publisher and studio eventually would have been unable to use many of the character’s defining aspects, including his secret identity, his origin, certain elements of his costume and powers (super-strength and super-speed), and Lois Lane, without striking an agreement with the creators' families.
Denied a full hearing before the Ninth Circuit's full bench, the Shuster estate filed a petition with the Supreme Court in June, arguing that Peavy and Frank Shuster had no termination right to exercise in 1992, because before the 1998 Copyright Extension Act that right only extended to spouses, children and grandchildren, not siblings. Therefore, DC Comics in 1992 still held the Shuster stake assigned to the company’s predecessor in 1938. The estate insists Shuster’s sister and brother were merely releasing DC from future payments in exchange for the pensions.
Although I believe there's an appeal pending in the Siegel case, it seems likely that whatever dispute remains will end up in state court, where a judge could address breach-of-contract claims.
(hat tip to commenter Roni)