Superman rights tale better than fiction

Judge to issue key decision in the battle over rights

A judge is about to issue a key decision in the battle over the rights to Superman, but the long legal tangle over the Man of Steel has created such a lore of its own that it often seems to trump the comicbook character’s own mythology.

The rags-to-missed-riches story of co-creators Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, and how they sold their creation in 1938 for $130, only to see it become a franchise that reaped perhaps billions, is legendary.

What’s striking is the extent to which it pervades even the legal briefing as both sides makes their case to U.S. District Judge Otis Wright. One side’s greed is the other’s ingratitude.

Wright is poised to decide whether to grant DC Comics summary judgment on its claim that the Shuster estate’s effort to reclaim copyrights to original Superman works are invalid. A provision of copyright law allows creators, and their families, under certain conditions, to reclaim copyrights that were granted long ago.

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The family of Siegel, who died in 1996, already won key rulings in 2008 and 2009 that gives it control over these early Superman works. But now DC claims that the Shuster family’s termination — his nephew, Mark Warren Peary, is executor of his estate — is not valid. It is set to take effect in October 2013, but DC cites a variety of reasons why it is invalid. Among them is a 1992 agreement it made with Shuster’s sister, Jean, and brother, Frank, that paid off Shuster’s “large unpaid debts” and provided them with survivor benefits.

Legally, DC argues that the agreement released it from future claims and regranted it Shuster’s copyright interest, an “all-encompassing grant” that had the effect of superceding the Shusters’ termination right. Publicity-wise, DC makes the case that it has provided for the Shusters, giving them bonuses even when it didn’t have to.

Represented by Dan Petrocelli, DC pulls no punches in claiming that it was at peace with the Shusters until Peary started exerting control over his mother’s affairs, retained attorney Marc Toberoff, and then filed a termination notice. DC paints Peary as opportunistic, as “Jean’s adult and jobless son,” a person who “rewrote” her will to make himself sole heir and then “appointed himself” executor of Shuster’s estate, and notes that he had once sought DC’s help in selling a script to Warner Bros.

The estate rejects the argument that the 1992 pact invalidates the Shuster termination right, as it mentioned no such thing. Moreover, it claims that Shuster’s brother and sister could not have bargained away the termination right, as at the time it could only be passed to a spouse, child or grandchild in the event of a creator’s death.

But from a PR standpoint, the Shuster estate has the power of a well-known narrative. As Toberoff sums up in a court filing: “While Superman appeared everywhere, from comics to radio, TV, films, and merchandise, his creators slipped into obscurity and poverty: Siegel’s last job was as a mail clerk, and Shuster worked intermittently as a messenger boy.”

The 1992 agreement, the Shuster filing states, provided for only a “modest” pension increase. In the years since, “Frank and Jean struggled to get by. Requests for increases in their pension were denied, but periodic bonuses were granted.”

It also faulted DC Comics and Warner Bros. for the bitter battle now at hand: After the Siegels recaptured their share of the copyrights, “DC replaced its general counsel and outside counsel, and retaliated by suing herein the Siegels, the Shusters and their longtime counsel, Mr. Toberoff,” the filing states.

Whether the Siegel and Shuster narratives actually can influence a judge’s decision, on the merits, is another question, but the story behind the story is often not lost. The opinion written by Judge Stephen Larson in the Siegel side of the case reads like a history of the franchise — with illustrations.

At stake is whether the Man of Steel will have two co-owners and where either will be able to exploit the character, subject to accounting, said Aaron Moss, partner at Greenberg Glusker. Next year, Warner Bros. is planning a release of a Superman reboot, “Man of Steel.” Until then, comic book gurus and legal eagles will have this story of copyright to captivate.