Ruling near in Superman rights battle

Federal judge could invalidate heirs' efforts to reclaim rights

The battle for control over the rights to “Superman” is about to see another significant decision, as a federal judge will decide whether to invalidate an effort by the heirs of one of the co-creators of the Man of Steel to reclaim their stake in the character.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright cancelled a hearing that was slated for Monday on DC Comics’ motion for summary judgment in the dispute, saying he will decide the issue without oral argument.

Mark Warren Peary, nephew of “Superman” co-creator Joseph Shuster and executor of his estate, filed a notice of termination in 2003, which means the rights to early Man of Steel works would be reclaimed in October 2013. A provision of the Copyright Act allows creators and their heirs to recapture their works; the aim is to afford authors a greater share of the proceeds given that they often have little leverage at the start of their careers.

In 2008 and 2009, a federal judge ruled that the family of Shuster’s partner, Jerome Siegel, had successfully recaptured portions of the “Superman” storyline.

The case is one of the highest profile — and most bitterly fought — disputes over copyright termination. Warner Bros. is seeking to reboot the Man of Steel in a tentpole slated for release next year.

DC Comics, a unit of Warner Bros., is challenging the Shuster termination notice, arguing that it is invalid for a number of reasons. Among them: a 1992 agreement that Shuster’s sister Jean Peavy and brother Frank made with DC Comics in 1992, shortly after Shuster died, that paid off Shuster’s debts and provided them with survivor benefits, which DC claims amount to more than $600,000 so far. The agreement also regranted DC all copyright interests in Shuster’s works and released it from all future claims.

“Because the 1992 agreement had the legal effect of extinguishing all pre-1978 copyright grants and replacing them with a new all-encompassing 1992 grant, there was nothing left for Peary to terminate in 2003,” DC, represented by Dan Petrocelli, said in a court filing on July 16. “A deal is a deal, and like the Shuster family’s claims to the Superman copyrights rejected by the courts in the 1940s and 1970s, the new claim must, too, be rejected.”

Marc Toberoff, who represents both families, challenged DC’s contention that the 1992 agreement superceded the Shusters’ termination rights. He characterized the survivor payments as a “modest” pension increase, raising it to $25,000 from a prior agreement, and said the 1992 pact did not make any mention of termination rights.

Morevoer, he wrote, Shuster’s brother and sister did not hold termination rights at the time, as they could be only passed to a spouse, child or grandchild in the event of a creator’s death. In 1998, a new law extended the class of people who could terminate a copyright to executors of estates, which cleared the way for Mark Warren Peary to do so after he was appointed executor in 2003.

Wright gave no indication of when he would issue his ruling.