The long legal battle over the rights to “Superman” has been complicated, convoluted and cutthroat. But underlying the latest twist in the case is a date not too far off in the future: 2013.
That’s when Warner Bros. could lose a significant degree of control over one of its jewels, the Man of Steel, as it eyes an array of properties to keep the franchise alive on the screen.
On Friday, DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros., via recently hired superlawyer Daniel Petrocelli, filed a suit against Marc Toberoff, the attorney who represents the heirs to the estates of “Superman” co-creators Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster. Also named in the suit were heirs and reps for the two estates.
The suit accuses Toberoff of interfering with DC’s rights to exploit the Man of Steel by poisoning the studio’s relationships with the creators’ heirs in an effort to gain his own control over the copyrights. They accuse him of having an ulterior motive that goes beyond legal representation and say he has wrestled a 47.5% stake in the heirs’ claimed rights, while the Siegel heirs get 27.5% and the Shuster heirs get 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.
The move was an aggressive counterpunch at Toberoff, well known as a thorn in the side of studios as he has represented creators, heirs and estates in winning back shares of copyrights from an array of properties. He also represents the heirs of Jack Kirby, the Marvel comicbook artist, in their suit against the Walt Disney Co. over the rights to Marvel’s characters.
In a lengthy statement issued after the lawsuit was filed, Toberoff fired back, denying the allegations and calling the studio’s move “gutter tactics” and the case against him “ludicrous and frivolous.” He said the only interest he has in the lawsuits is a contingent legal fee, “and the last time I checked, that was legal in the state of California.”
He said that the purpose of the suit was to “defame me or potentially conflict me out of the case and thereby pressure my clients to sell back the ‘Superman’ or ‘Superboy’ copyrights they’ve recaptured as a distressed sales price.”
The suit accuses 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 cites an unsigned document, included in its filing as Exhibit A and called the “Superman — Marc Toberoff Timeline,” that spells out a series of tactics on the part of Toberoff through which he is purportedly claiming as “much ownership of the Superman copyright personally as he can.” “Consider it an early holiday gift,” the document says, noting that its exposure could save Time Warner “potentially millions and millions of dollars.” The suit says that the document was written by an attorney previously employed at Toberoff’s firm.
Toberoff, however, says the document spews “unsubstantiated and unattributed accusations” against him.
“The anonymous letter was supposedly included with a large pile of privileged documents that were brazenly stolen from Mr. Toberoff’s law offices and mysteriously arrived at Warner Bros.’ doorstep in the midst of this billion-dollar litigation,” Toberoff said in a statement issued by his firm.
Last year, a federal judge ruled that Siegel heirs recaptured key rights to the character, including the first two weeks of the daily Superman comicstrips as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comicbooks. As DC Comics and Warner Bros. still retain rights to other major parts of the storyline, the ruling essentially split up key parts of the mythology. The heirs control such things as the costume and alter-ego Clark Kent; DC Comics has Kryptonite and Lex Luthor.
In question is what happens with the Shuster portion of the rights. According to their suit, DC Comics says it has until Oct. 26, 2013, as an exclusive window to negotiate with the Shuster heirs. Toberoff has said that the reversion of rights then would give the heirs of the two creators control over the character. But pointedly, DC Comics charges Toberoff with “improperly” interfering with their period of exclusivity. DC is seeking some kind of determination as to who owns what parts of the Superman material.
A 1976 provision of the copyright law enables heirs to regain copyrights under certain circumstances.
Toberoff says that the heirs to the estates were unmoved by the filing of the suit.
“They are absolutely resolute,” he said. “This is going to have no effect on them. If anything, it’s the reverse.”