Appellate court: Judge erred in siding with Siegel heir

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of Warner Bros. over control of the rights to the Superman character — paving the way for the studio to continue making Superman movies after “Man of Steel” opens this summer.

In a ruling issued Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a 2008 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Larson that had denied Warner Bros.’ contention that it had a deal in October 2001 with Laura Siegel Larson, one of the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerome Siegel. That 2008 ruling found that the Siegel heirs were entitled to exploit the copyrights to several aspects of Superman such as his origin story and costume.

But the appeals court ruled that Judge Larson — who is not related to Laura Siegel Larson — had erred in granting a summary judgment to Larson because the judge had failed to address whether a 2001 letter from Larson’s attorney constituted an acceptance of terms negotiated between the parties.

“We hold, as a matter of law, that the Oct. 19, 2001, letter did constitute such an acceptance,” the appeals court said in its ruling. “The October 19, 2001 letter itself plainly states that the heirs have ‘accepted D.C. Comics offer of October 16, 2001 in respect of the ‘Superman’ and ‘Spectre’ properties.”

The studio trumpeted the appeals court ruling. “This is a great day for Superman, for his fans, for DC Entertainment and for Warner Bros.,” it said in a statement.

“Today’s ruling vindicates DC Comics’ long-held position that it entered into a binding agreement with the Jerry Siegel family in 2001,” Warner said. “The court’s decision paves the way for the Siegels finally to receive the compensation they negotiated for and which DC has been prepared to pay for over a decade. We are extremely pleased that Superman’s adventures can continue to be enjoyed across all media platforms worldwide for generations to come.”

Marc Toberoff, attorney for the Siegel heirs, was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

The decision follows a ruling by a federal judge in October to deny the heirs of Superman’s other co-creator, Joseph Shuster, from reclaiming rights to the Man of Steel. In that decision, Judge Otis Wright asserted that a 1992 pact prevents the family from exercising an aspect of copyright law that allows authors to recapture their works — meaning that Warner Bros. and subsidiary DC Comics would not have to seek permission from the estates of the co-creators of Superman as the studio pursues future projects.

Warner Bros. will release “Man of Steel” on June 14, 2013. Zack Snyder is directing “Man of Steel” for WB and Legendary Pictures, with Brit thesp Henry Cavill playing Superman and Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane and Michael Shannon also starring.

The ruling removes a potential obstacle to using Superman in its all-star superhero project, “Justice League,.” based on the WB-controlled stable of DC Comics superheroes.

The appeals court also gave Warner Bros. a favorable ruling in its 2010 tortious interference suit against Toberoff. DC Comics, represented by Dan Petrocelli, claimed that earlier in the decade he interfered with their relationships with Siegel’s and Shuster’s heirs to coax them out of settling with the studio and instead enter into an agreement with his own production ventures to exploit the Superman franchise.

Toberoff has characterized the suit against him as “frivolous” and a way to pressure his clients into settling the case and selling back the rights at a reduced price. But in a separate decision, the appeals court affirmed Thursday a judge’s denial of Toberoff’s motion under the anti-SLAPP law (aimed at protection against frivolous legal action).

“The district judge properly held that DC’s claims were not ‘based on’ defendants’ protected activity,” the 9th Circuit said. “DC’s fourth and fifth claims arise from the heirs’ repudiation, at Toberoff’s apparent urging, of their agreements or economic relationships with DC. Neither the heirs’ repudiation nor Toberoff’s alleged inducement itself constitutes protected conduct under the anti-SLAPP statute.”

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