A Legal Minute: A little bit of the legal side of the biz you can read in a minute.
When I was growing up I was a huge fan of the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise. It began for me with Richard Pryor’s turn in Superman III. After seeing it, I begged my parents to rent the Betamax (oh yeah) of parts I and II. Although a few years later I was a little disappointed by Superman IV, it was still an awesome franchise. The films introduced me to the Man of Steel and over time I followed the comic books, picking up old issues and following new storylines. Heck, when DC Comics famously killed Superman off (before bringing him back), I just about had a fit.
Well, thankfully Superman is coming back after a hiatus (we won’t count Superman Returns) courtesy of director Zack Snyder. For years the Superman character has been owned by Warner Brothers, who acquired the DC Comics properties. For a little while now Warner Brothers has been embroiled in a dispute between the families of the creators of Superman over whether or not Warner still is entitled to the rights in Superman.
Last week a federal judge in California granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Warner Brothers in regards to a 1992 agreement between Warner and Jean Peavy, sister of Joe Shuster, a Superman co-creator. As a little background, back in the early-mid thirties Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel co-created the Superman character and handed over the property to National Allied Publications (later DC Comics) for $130 and a contract to supply material. After seeing little to no compensation for creating such an incredible brand, it was not until the 70’s that DC Comics, in response to public pressure, agreed to a lifetime pension to the two co-creators.
At the heart of this is that the agreement the co-creators struck in the 30’s handed over their copyrights to DC Comics. That is where the value of Superman lies, which is why the co-creators spent years trying to sue DC to get them back. Of course, they lost each step of the way, as the law is very clear that they assigned their rights. And even with the pensions DC granted in the 70’s there was the opportunity for the co-creators (or their heirs) to terminate this assignment of copyright (there is a limited opportunity for authors of pre 1976 works to terminate copyright assignments to get those rights back).
But enter the 1992 agreement. Warner Brothers successfully argued that an agreement in 1992 between Peavy (on behalf of Shuster) to pay off the debts of Shuster and up some final benefits was in exchange for not pursuing any potential future claims was equal to waiving the right to rights to terminate the Superman copyright, thus guaranteeing Warner Brothers continued rights in Superman.
On the outside, I must admit, this seems like a raw deal for Shuster’s heirs (and Siegel’s who are in a similar suit on the other side of the country). However, supporting statements and evidence at the hearing seem to show a pretty compelling case that Peavy knew what rights the estate was giving up by signing the 1992 agreement.
Still, the case is not over. The decision will certainly be appealed, as the basis for the judge’s decision rests on a possibly shaky interpretation of the 1992 agreement. He says it was an unequivocal grant of rights, but that might be subject to interpretation. So, for now, Warner Brothers gets at least a couple more years of controlling Superman’s exploits. And hopefully for us fanboys, they will do the suit justice next year at the theatres.
Roberto “R.C.” Rondero de Mosier is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, California, New York and Illinois. He is a partner at Gonzalez & Mosier Law PLLC. His practice specializes in Entertainment Law and Intellectual Property rights. In his spare time he enjoys watching television and films, and writing about it. Follow him on Twitter @showbizattorney, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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