The Legal View: "Breaking" old news in the Superman copyright case

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By Jeff Trexler

Other comic news sites are reporting a bombshell development in DC’s legal fight to hold onto the Superman copyright: on Monday, the company filed a court document asserting that the Shuster estate had actually sold its share of the Superman copyright back to DC in 1992 and affirmed this sale in subsequent correspondence.

This was indeed a stunning piece of news — back in 2009, when DC first made this argument. Click below for an explanation of why DC brought it up again in a court filing on Monday.In 2009, DC Comics filed the hotly disputed lawsuit in which it is attempting to get the Superman copyright termination claims thrown out of court on the basis of misconduct by Siegel & Shuster heir lawyer Marc Toberoff. One of the arguments made in the 2009 complaint: the Shuster estate has no legal grounds for filing a termination claim, inasmuch as the estate signed an agreement in 1992 selling all of its copyright interests, including any termination right, to DC in exchange for a pension for Joe Shuster’s sister. The 2009 complaint went to assert that the Shuster estate affirmed this agreement in correspondence after the Siegel heirs filed their own termination claim.

The 1992 agreement and the related argument have been discussed by any number of writers since DC first made the claim, including me here at The Beat, and has been the subject of many court filings over the past three years. DC brought it up again on Monday as part of a standard legal move in a case such as this. Its July 16 filing wasn’t a Perry Mason-esque unveiling of surprising new facts. Rather, it was a routine motion for summary judgment.

In a motion for summary judgment, a party is asking the judge to make a ruling based on the existing case record without going forward with a trial. The factual predicate for such a decision is supposed to be the case’s undisputed facts. That’s why you see the abbreviation “SUF” throughout the most recent filing — it’s a reference to the “Statement of Undisputed Facts” proposed by DC. The summary judgment filing, the proposed SUF and the attached exhibits collect all of the material favorable to DC in order to persuade the judge to make a final judgment in its favor regarding the claims initially filed in the 2009 complaint (as amended somewhat a year later).

This isn’t to say the summary judgment filing is unimportant — to the contrary, it could lead to the end of the case or at least provide the basis of an appeal, as we have already seen following the district court’s historic 2008 summary judgment giving the Siegel heirs half of the Superman copyright. However, what this filing does not do is add unexpected arguments and facts. The whole point of a summary judgment filing is to say there’s nothing new left to discuss.

Comments

  1. Dogfly says:

    Just boycott DC, comics fans. They aren’t doing much worthwhile anyways, neither is Marvel. Just stories with hijacked characters battling other hijacked characters crowding the frames all the time….

    Its like funding gangsters.

    Just saying.

  2. horatio weisfeld says:

    Comic books: A great AMERICAN art form — a very sad and pathetic american business.

    Mamas, don’t let your babes grow up to work for comic book companies.

  3. Thanks, I was wondering why people were acting like this was new, when the relevant bits all seemed like stuff I’d heard before. Sad to see people who should know better acting like this filing, produced by DC’s hired legal minds, is somehow proof that DC has an airtight case, as if they’d put in any counter evidence in their motion to dismiss.

    Kind of funny to see DC giving any weight to promises they had from Shuster’s heirs not to contest the copyright. I’m sure lots of creators, starting with Shuster, could have told you what DC’s promises are worth, so why should DC expect anything better than they gave.

  4. “Sad to see people who should know better acting like this filing, produced by DC’s hired legal minds, is somehow proof that DC has an airtight case”

    I agree, Bob. I don’t understand why people all of a sudden started treating everything that comes out of the DC/Warner lawyers’ mouths as the gospel truth.

  5. patrick ford says:

    Bob, It’s your typical corporation awe. Toberoff wins a summery judgment and that’s no big deal. He should have accepted the on the table “generous” settlement rather than go out and have the nerve to win a summery judgment.
    Toberoff on the wrong end (Disney/Marvel sue Kirby heirs) of a summery judgment is just the opposite in the eyes of those people who worship at the feet of conglomerates. In the D/M vs Heirs case the thought is the summery judgment means Toberoff should just go home.
    It’s the bleating of sheep.

  6. reglab 47 says:

    Summary—s-u-m-m-a-r-y…

    “typical corporation awe”—that’s a good one!

    anyone who disagrees with you is a “sheep” incapable of thought.

    who’s the monolithic thinker here?

  7. otistfirefly says:

    >>>Just boycott DC, comics fans. They aren’t doing much worthwhile anyways, neither is Marvel. Just stories with hijacked characters battling other hijacked characters crowding the frames all the time….

    Its like funding gangsters.

    Just saying.>>>

    LOL! You people crack me up. I bet you’re on the “poor poor Alan Moore” bandwagon as well. (Not to mention that Bane was created to f over Romney.) While it’s a shame that Siegel & Shuster and Bill Finger and, especially, Jack Kirby were not better rewarded for their efforts, these arguments always seem to take the position that if DC had never existed, that Siegel & Shuster would have somehow been SOOOOO much better off, because Superman would have miraculously made it out of their house and they would have been millionaires. Should they have been paid better? Absolutely! Bonuses? No doubt! Royalties? Sure! But that’s not the way it worked then and that’s a shame.

    Don’t even get me going on poor poor Alan Moore… being paid handsomely by DC for years… those bastards keeping that book in print and promoting it and sending him royalties so he can live comfortably without having to work. DAMN I feel sorry for him every day, especially while I’m busting my ass at the office…

  8. “these arguments always seem to take the position that if DC had never existed, that Siegel & Shuster would have somehow been SOOOOO much better off, because Superman would have miraculously made it out of their house and they would have been millionaires.”

    No, the current lawsuit isn’t about that. It’s about a copyright law that allows the creators or their heirs to reclaim the copyright after a certain amount of time has passed. It’s not about whether the original deal was fair, or whether Superman would have been successful without DC.

  9. otistfirefly says:

    >>>No, the current lawsuit isn’t about that. It’s about a copyright law that allows the creators or their heirs to reclaim the copyright after a certain amount of time has passed. It’s not about whether the original deal was fair, or whether Superman would have been successful without DC.

    I understand that. Does any sane person think a multi-billion dollar corporation is just going to hand over copyrights worth millions to the descendants of the guys that got a lousy deal because it would be the right thing to do (some would say)? Judging by the comments I’ve seen on the case, apparently they do. A lot of them come from the angle that S&S were just plain screwed, not from the angle of copyright renewal and the law pertaining to it. And a lot come from the “oh fck DC let’s boycott them!!” mentality, which is just plain ridiculous.

  10. Thunderfist says:

    While this filing doesn’t guarantee that DC has an airtight case, the Shuster Termination has always been the weak link in Toberoff’s chain simply because Joe Shuster died in 1992 without exercising his option to terminate and without leaving any heirs as defined by the copyright act.

    While not air tight, the odds on this part of the legal battle are in DC’s favour not Toberoff and always have been.

  11. Dogfly says:

    Boycotting is not ridiculous, sorry to disagree….

    It is tool consumers should use when they disagree with the ethics of a company, especially when its services are recreational. For example, I like Apples products but I won’t purchase more if what happens at FoxConn keeps happening. And if they are taking steps to address that then I notice…I wouldn’t buy Nike products for the same reason way back when. It looks like consumers succeeded in changed Nike’s ways.

    Marvel and DC are blatantly trying to discredit creators who have a legitimate claim to share in the success in their characters. The big companies could legally twist things so it could accomodate their greed. Its especially sad since they have not had creators that could match the hold on the public imagination as the characters that came from a Ditko, Kirby , Siegel, Shuster and even Alan Moore. .

    Bob Kane was an exception. His dad had the legal foresight to have his son’s rights protected and benefit comfortably from his unique creation. But most artists weren’t that lucky. Should they be exploited and discredited by a corporation loaded with lawyers to dig you in with one wrong move. A lot of people work hard but could they have created a Superman? Good enough to last 75 yrs or so? The closest original thing we’ve had since Watchmen in popularity has been Spawn or Walking Dead. Not stuff I follow but its clear the character Spawn is petering out after 20 yrs or the 90′s. Its not built to last like Superman for 70 plus years once the initial interest is gone. Superman has ideal values within his character and a mythic dimension his corporate caretakers could care less about. Spawn, well, isn’t he just a cool looking demon guy that people got bored of once the cool artists left. Or everybody duplicated in other books,

    Siegel & Shuster had it all ready before they got to DC. They made a myth. And DC or Time Warner has been the only one benefiting. Regarding Alan Moore, he is probably doing fine even if DC are being gangsters about his creations. What if he wasn’t as well off, as in demand and talented as he is? Watchmen should be benefiting him when he needs it and rightly so. From what I browsed in the comics store, he still at another level from whats being done today. He’s an artist, not a corporate shill. And artists should have income from their works and fair protection in good times and in bad ones. When Avengers broke records, the head of Disney cashed in tons of stock and added a lot more to his 1% income while Kirby wasn’t even awarded a proper screen credit and no part of that success.

    Everybody going along with corporations stepping on the artists seems troubling to me, they should have som defense. Its an industry where if 1/3 of the comic base speak up and don’t buy the crap books they are putting out now, you could change things pretty easily, maybe even better the art form. Superman and Spiderman mean nothing to them if it doesn’t make money. They need the comic fan base for their hero profit schemes to work…

  12. I read this on some sites and wondered how this could be “new”! DC is fighting tooth and nail to keep their investment, and its not like Marc (the other Marc) is an angel. This is business and which involves war, and as long as they play by the rules, fair is fair!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Legal | In a motion for summary judgment filed Monday in the long-running legal battle for the rights to Superman, attorneys for Warner Bros. are revisiting their 2009 argument that the estate of Joe Shuster has no grounds to reclaim the artist’s share of the copyright to the Man of Steel. They point to a 1992 agreement in which the estate relinquished all claims in exchange for “more than $600,000 and other benefits,” which included DC Comics paying Shuster’s remaining debts follow his death earlier that year, and providing his sister Jean Seavy with a $25,000 annual pension. Daniel Best has the documents, while Jeff Trexler provides context, noting that the new filing “filing wasn’t a Perry Mason-esque unveiling of surprising new facts. Rather, it was a routine motion for summary judgment.” A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 20. [20th Century Danny Boy, The Beat] [...]

  2. [...] How is this a "new twist"? The Legal View: “Breaking” old news in the Superman copyright case*|*The Beat [...]

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