DC Comics has won some key recent rulings over the rights to Superman, but a federal judge has rejected central claims they’ve made against Marc Toberoff, the attorney for the heirs to the creators of the Man of Steel.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright also refused DC’s effort to force Toberoff to pay some $500,000 in attorney’s fees, going so far as to say that the singling out of their attorney “smacks of animus” toward him. One of Toberoff’s specialties has been representing authors and their heirs as they seek to invoke a provision of the Copyright Act that allows them to reclaim rights to their creations after a certain period of time.
When the heirs to Superman co-creators Joseph Shuster and Jerome Siegel sought to reclaim the character, it set up a protracted legal tangle that has lasted nearly a decade. In October, Wright ruled in favor of DC Comics for the Shuster portion of the rights, and in January the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals largely overturned a lower court ruling and delivered a victory to DC for the Siegel share. The Shuster heirs are appealing the decision, and the Siegel heirs are awaiting a resolution in other matters on their side of the case.
In 2010, with the prospect of losing its rights to Superman as its parent company, Warner Bros., got ready to reboot the franchise, DC filed suit against the heirs and also against Toberoff. The studio claimed that Toberoff engaged in “tortious interference” by inducing the family members to break off agreements they had with the studio, and instead enter into pacts with a loan-out company, Pacific Pictures and a joint venture, IP Worldwide, the latter formed with Ari Emanuel, then CEO of Endeavor. DC contended that Toberoff was trying to wrest control of the rights for his own gain. He denied the claim, and noted that although he continues to represent the heirs, the Pacific Pictures and IP agreements were voluntarily canceled in 2004.
“Punishing Toberoff and Pacific Pictures with a $500,000 attorneys-fees award would send a clear message to copyright defendants that litigating a claim with good-faith, supported defenses is wrong. That is undoubtedly not a message this court wants to send to Toberoff or others,” Wright wrote.
In another order, Wright also rejected DC’s tortious interference claims against Toberoff and the heirs, ruling that they were time-barred by the statute of limitations. He wrote that DC “had more than enough inquiry” by 2006 at the latest to file a claim that “Toberoff may have meddled in its business affairs with the Siegels and the Shusters.”
Toberoff said, “Warner’s suit against me - their opposing counsel - was retaliatory and meritless, and many have commented that it was in bad form. We chose to stand up to them and go the distance, and are very gratified that the Court did the right thing and dismissed Warner’s claims.”
A spokesman for Warner Bros. said that the studio had no comment.
Wright did not rule on DC’s claim of state-law unfair competition, over pacts signed between Toberoff, the Shusters and the Siegels, and said that they are “presently moot” given recent decisions over the rights, although that could change on appeal.
Still needed a resolution are claims over the rights to “Superboy” and, in another twist on the case, the rights to images of the character that appeared in ads that predated Action Comics No. 1 in 1938. DC Comics believes that the dispute over the rights to the legendary character is nearly at end, while the heirs and Toberoff continue to press their claims.