News reports are circulating that the Siegel and Shuster heirs have asked the lower court to dismiss DC’s copyright lawsuits. What actually happened is rather different.
The Siegel and Shuster heirs’ attorney, Marc Toberoff, appears to have conceded that the Superman copyright dispute is over and the heirs have lost.
Here’s what happened in more detail & what’s scheduled to happen next.
On February 4, Marc Toberoff filed a motion in federal district court in the Pacific Pictures case. This motion asked the court to dismiss three of DC’s claims for relief. All three of these claims were based primarily in state tort law, not federal copyright law, and the court’s decision on these issues would not undo the previously determined status of the heirs’ claims to the copyright.
What the reports have noted correctly in part is that Toberoff’s motion to dismiss are based (for the most part) on the pertinent statute of limitations. In brief, Toberoff argues that DC filed too late in regard to its tortious interference with contract and tortious interference with economic advantage claims.
Whether the statute of limitations had indeed tolled is an interesting question for lawyers fascinated by procedure (I know you’re out there!), but for the comics community what’s most important is that the only thing the judge’s findings will affect is whether Toberoff and Pacific Pictures will have to pay DC damages and attorney fees on these claims.
Toberoff’s argument on the sixth claim is where the real Siegel and Shuster news lies. In its sixth claim, DC asked for damages on the grounds of the invalidity of the copyright assignment and consent agreements that Toberoff had obtained from the Siegel and Shuster heirs. DC cited as support for this damages claim state unfair competition law and the invalidity of the copyright assignments under the copyright law.
In response, Toberoff supplements a statute of limitations argument with an assertion that the sixth claim is moot.
One reason is that part of the claim is actually pre-empted by federal copyright law, but that’s not the kicker. Check out the following excerpt (emphasis added):
Here, summary judgment to DC on its Third Claim rendered DC’s Sixth Claim moot, as the Court already held that the long-cancelled 2001/2003 PPC Agreements and the 2008 Agreement are invalid and unenforceable.
There is no “live controversy” between the parties, because the agreements that DC alleged “unfairly violate DC Comics’ rights and interests” have already been declared invalid.
DC’s Sixth Claim is also moot as a practical matter because the Court granted DC summary judgment on its First Claim, declaring that the Shuster Termination was invalid and that the Shuster Estate recovered no Superman copyrights. Dkt. 507 at 13, 16. DC could not have been denied an alleged “right” to exclusively negotiate over copyrights that the Shuster Estate did not recover, and which DC still owned.
Summary judgment should be granted to Defendants as to DC’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Claims, and this case brought to a close.
In other words, Toberoff is saying it’s over. The agreements between the heirs and Pacific Pictures–void, with no further argument. The Shuster settlement–valid, and the Shuster claim is no longer in dispute. No need for the court to drag things out any longer.
This is about as close as you get in law to waving the white flag.
Sure, technically that leaves the Siegel claim, which is the subject of a separate case, but this is no longer the voice of a fighter. The schedule for the Siegel case had called for a joint status update by January 25. That deadline is long gone, which raises the question of whether there is talk of the Siegels just folding instead.
Last of all, for Siegel and Shuster case completists, the exhibits to the Toberoff motion include a comprehensive document overview of the Shuster settlement, the Siegel settlement and the Pacific Pictures case. What stands out is the way that the corporate language in the Siegel settlement turns potentially good points into something more sinister.
Case in point: the legal language on both sides re an ongoing relationship after the settlement is signed. The gist: the Siegels won’t say anything bad about DC. The Siegels agree to make public appearances at DC’s behest, where they will then praise DC. They won’t make any other public appearances or say anything about Superman or the case without DC’s written consent. If they want to publish a biography, Time Warner gets first dibs so it can control whatever goes in print. If anyone asks the Siegels about Superman or the case, they will refer the questioner to DC. When Superman goes into the public domain, they are the only people in the world who can’t do anything with the character.
You want to understand how Joanne Siegel could turn away millions of dollars? That’s it, right there. She said so herself in her subsequent letter to AOL Time Warner:
The document is a heartless attempt to rewrite the history of Superman’s creation and to strip Laura and me of the dignity and respect that we deserve. . . . [T]his contract seeks to discredit Jerry Siegel and to undermine our rights, a direct contradiction of what was said.
There are ways you can accomplish the lawyerly aims here while also making people such as the Siegels feel like they have agency, value and respect. What the Siegels got instead was corporate legalese based on the widely accepted premise that the following is a model resolution for all creative disputes:
O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.