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Increasingly bitter and complicated Superman lawsuit delayed by appeal

Superman

The ferocious fight for the future of Superman has been put on hold while a federal judge considers an appeal on a procedural ruling.

THR, Esq. reports that U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright issued the stay on Friday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing concerning Warner Bros.’ lawsuit against Marc Toberoff, attorney for the heirs of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The studio sued Toberoff in May in a move designed to force him to resign as the lawyer for Siegel’s heirs, who in 2008 successfully terminated the original 1938 transfer of copyright for Action Comics #1. The 65-page complaint accused Toberoff of manipulating the Siegel family and the estate of Joe Shuster into rejecting “mutually beneficial” longtime agreements with DC Comics, and making arrangements that would give him “a controlling financial interest in the families’ collective claims.” Toberoff responded by accusing Warner Bros. of conducting “a smear campaign,” and in August filed motions to dismiss, citing California anti-SLAPP laws designed to curb lawsuits intended to intimidate the opposition through delays and legal expense.

In late September, attorneys for Warner Bros. filed five separate motions in an effort to keep its lawsuit alive, amending its complaint and accusing Toberoff of attempting to shield himself from liability for interfering with his clients’ contracts. The changes to the studio’s suit led Toberoff to file his motions again. However, Wright ruled the anti-SLAPP motion moot due to the amended complaint. Toberoff appealed that ruling, which brings us to the stay of the entire case.

THR, Esq. notes that Warner Bros.’ aggressive and controversial litigation against Toberoff could be on hold for as long as 18 months; the studio, however, could speed up the process by filing a motion to dismiss the appeal.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. pushes forward with its Zack Snyder-directed Superman reboot, which must begin production by 2011 or risk opening the door for Siegel’s heirs to bring action over the lack of a rights-reversion clause in the studio’s deal with DC Comics. Of course, another bigger deadline looms just over the horizon: In 2013, the Shuster estate will be eligible to reclaim its half of the copyright.

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4 Comments

Warner Bros/DC conglomerate…do the right thing…you know what it is…aren’t corporations people too…where are your feelings? (tongue firmly in cheek)

Yeah Warner/DC. Give away a major revenue stream that your company has developed for decades. I mean, hey, who wouldn’t love to be instantly fired with prejudice and never work in their chosen field ever again? Where are your feelings?

“However, Wright ruled the anti-SLAPP motion moot due to the amended complaint”

What? That sounds strange. Maybe the law’s changed since the last time I looked, but it used to be that you couldn’t avoid an anti-SLAPP by amending around it…? The whole theory behind the anti-SLAPP statute is that people with deep pockets shouldn’t be allowed to sue people for exercising their first amendment rights (though whether that’s how the anti-SLAPP’s actually been utilized is a separate question). The idea being that rich companies have long used lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits to chill free speech– the classic case being a slumlord suing his tenants for defamation when they organize against him.

My vague recollection was that Courts had long found, and repeatedly found, that amending around an anti-SLAPP would completely stymie that underlying policy. If the original complaint reveals the case to be an anti-SLAPP, allowing deep pockets to lawyer their way around an anti-SLAPP would completely defeat the purpose of the statute. I don’t know. Sounds like a well taken appeal to me, but maybe there’s been a shift in the case law I’m unaware of that justifies the Judge’s decision (to the extent it’s been accurately reported in this article)…?

Or maybe there are a couple exceptions, actually, to what I’m thinking of that might have applied here…? Plus, if they’re in federal court, the authority I’m thinking of might not have been applicable. Interesting story.

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