DC Retains Rights To Superman

DC Comics and Warner Bros. won another legal victory in their fight with the families of the men who created their flagship character.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Action Comics #1

In an unsurprising turn of events, the giant corporate megolith of Warner Bros. has won their legal battle with the family of Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman along with Jerry Siegel, and will retain the full rights to the character upon which DC Comics and the entire superhero genre was built.

Unsurprising to most, but not so for the Shusters' attorney Mark Toberoff, who said to the Hollywood Reporter “We respectfully disagree with its factual and legal conclusions, and it is surprising given that the judge appeared to emphatically agree with our position at the summary judgment hearing."

Toberoff himself has been the subject of some controversy, as WB tried to discredit him as someone out solely to "enrich himself" via misconduct, and Siegel's daughter Laura Siegel Larson issued an open letter to decry that move as dirty tricks from WB's high-priced legal squadron and accusing them of stealing documents from Toberoff's office. She said that's certainly not how Superman would behave. It's safe to say this is rather acrimonious.

If the Shusters had won, WB and DC would not have been able to use Lois Lane, Clark Kent or much of the iconic look of Superman without reaching a brand new agreement with the co-creators' families. However, the judge ruled that a 1992 agreement with Shuster's sister Jean Peavy, which paid Shuster's debts after his death that year and gave Peavy an annual $25,000 payout still stood as legal recompense for the billion dollar property that is Superman and could not be renegotiated despite the rules of copyright termination rights. The judge also cited a 1975 agreement with Shuster and Siegel that gave them lump sums and annual payouts.

Next up will be DC going to the 9th Circuit Court trying to overturn a 2008 U.S. District Court ruling that the Siegel family had successfully reclaimed their copyright to Superman and were owed profits from 1999 – a ruling Larson references in the aforementioned open letter. Also, it's likely that Toberoff will look for ways to appeal today's ruling.

This fight isn't over, but WB gets to move forward with the Man of Steel movie and lots of Superman comics in the meantime.

Creators' rights are still a hot topic in today's comic book industry, with prominent creators often leaving the "Big Two" companies to actually have fair deals working with their own creations at other companies, and Marvel and DC both seeking out cheaper talent from other countries. There is a long history of bum deals being given to comic creators – Alan Moore will tell you quite a bit about that relating to his dealings with Watchmen and DC's decision to start exploiting that.

It's sad that creators and publishers can't agree on fair compensation. But money makes things ugly.