Warner Bros.’ corporate sibling DC Comics has sued Marc Toberoff, the attorney representing heirs in the Superman copyright cases, and alleged he’s illegally interfered with its rights to exploit the Man of Steel.
The lawsuit focuses on Toberoff’s role as a financial participant, alleging that he’s violating copyright laws and interfering with the studios’s contractual rights.
Toberoff responded by denying the allegations, and saying that the studio’s “desperate” and that the case against him is “ludicrous and frivolous.”
“The only financial participation I have in the case is a contingent legal fee — and the last time I checked, that was legal in the state of California,” he told Daily Variety. “The purpose of this lawsuit is to muddy the waters and defame me. They’re trying to squeeze the copyright holders to get them to settle at a bargain price.”
The suit alleges that Toberoff — a Los Angeles-based specialist in copyright law — has secured control of the largest financial stake in the collective Superman termination rights with 47.5% while the Siegel heirs have 27.5% and the Shuster heirs have 25%.
“By these agreements, Toberoff purported to secure a majority and controlling financial stake in copyright interests in Superman assertedly held by the Siegel and Shuster heirs and preclude the heirs from freely entering into new agreements with DC Comics for the continued exploitation of Superman,” the 65-page complaint said.
DC, which filed the lawsuit Friday in federal court in Los Angeles, accused Toberoff of orchestrating “a web of collusive agreements” for Superman copyrights with the heirs to the co-creators of Superman, Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster. In addition to Toberoff, the suit names as defendants Pacific Pictures Corp., Mark Warren Peary as a rep of the Shuster estate and Joanne Siegel.
“By this scheme, Toberoff has sought to enrich himself by wrongfully laying claim to purported
rights to control the exploitation of Superman to the substantial detriment of DC Comics and in violation of rights it has held, significantly invested in, and expanded upon for over 70 years,” the complaint said. “DC Comics brings this suit to confirm its rights to the Superman property and seek redress for the wrongful conduct of Toberoff and entities he controls.”
The suit also accused Toberoff of preventing the Siegel and Shuster heirs “from freely entering into agreements with DC Comics — even if it was in their respective economic interest to do so.”
The suit has profound implications for Warner Bros. and corporate sibling DC Comics.
Toberoff asserted last year that the Siegel and Shuster heirs will own the entire Superman copyright in 2013. He also said that the court had ruled that if Warner Bros. does not start production on another Superman film by 2011, the Siegels will be able to sue to recover their damages.
A federal judge ruled in August that the Siegel family had “successfully recaptured” rights to additional works, including the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.
Warner Bros. and DC said at that point that had affirmed that the “vast majority” of key elements associated with the Superman character that were developed after Action Comics No. 1 were not part of the copyrights that the plaintiffs have recaptured and therefore remain solely owned by DC Comics.
The first Superman story was published in 1938 in Action Comics No. 1. For $130, Jerry Siegel and co-creator Joel Shuster signed a release in favor of DC’s predecessor, Detective Comics, and a 1974 court decision ruled they signed away their copyrights forever.
In 2008, the same court order ruled on summary judgment that the Siegels had successfully recaptured (as of 1999) Siegel’s copyright in Action Comics No. 1, giving them rights to the Superman character, including his costume, his alter-ego as reporter Clark Kent, the feisty reporter Lois Lane, their jobs at the Daily Planet newspaper working for a gruff editor, and the love triangle among Clark/Superman and Lois.