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Judge: Superman Rights Transferred to DC Comics in 2001 Agreement

A federal judge said that an October, 2001 letter was an agreement that transferred to DC Comics the rights to “Superman” held by the heirs to co-creator Jerome Siegel, but the order is hardly the end of the lengthy litigation.

In fact, the decision by U.S. District Judge Otis Wright left many lingering legal questions unresolved.

Wright’s ruling was in response to a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in November that an Oct. 19, 2001, letter from Kevin Marks, then the attorney for Siegel’s wife and daughter, to then-Warner Bros. general counsel John Schulman was an agreement in which the DC continued to get rights to Superman in exchange for “substantial financial consideration.”

That ruling reversed a 2008 district court decision that the parties actually “failed to come to an agreement on all material terms” back then, meaning the Siegels had rights to the character. A provision of the Copyright Act allows creators to reclaim the rights to their works after a certain period and under certain conditions.

Marc Toberoff, now representing the Siegel heirs, argued in court briefings that even though the 9th Circuit found that the Oct. 19 letter was a valid agreement, that did not mean that the heirs had actually transferred rights to DC Comics. Rather, the letter stated that the “Siegel Family would transfer all of its rights.”

Yet Wright wrote that he was bound by the 9th Circuit’s “implied finding” that the Oct. 19 letter did in fact transfer copyright ownership. Left up in the air is what either party has to do next to comply with the terms of the contract. “How DC would choose to proceed from here armed with a declaration that the contract remained enforceable but that the Siegels were still obligated to effect the transfer is beyond the purview of this court,” Wright added.

Moreover, Wright left it to the Siegels to seek a claim for breach of contract in state court. Their contention is that even if the Oct. 19 letter was valid, DC Comics breached it because they failed to make payments for the rights.

Although he seemed anxious to see a conclusion to the case, Wright asked for additional briefing on a further dispute over the rights to Superboy as well as to advertisements for the debut of the Superman comic in 1938.

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