Judge denies DC’s claims against attorney in Superman feud
Following a series of devastating legal blows to the estates of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their lawyer has finally received some good news: A federal judge denied a bid by DC Comics to force Marc Toberoff to pay $500,000 in attorneys fees.
According to Variety, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright on Thursday rejected the publisher’s 2010 claims that Toberoff illegally interfered with its copyright claims to the Man of Steel when he convinced the Siegel and Shuster heirs to walk away from “mutually beneficial” agreements and seek to recapture the rights to the first Superman story in Action Comics #1. They argued that the attorney stood to gain a controlling interest in the property.
But Wright sided with Toberoff and the Siegel and Shuster heirs, saying that DC had waited too long to make its claims of tortious interference. “The point here is that DC had more than enough knowledge by November 2006 to have tickled a suspicion that its business relationship with the Shusters was being tampered with,” the judge wrote. “It was then—and not when DC gathered the smoking-gun evidence supporting each element of its cause of action—that it should have filed suit.”
In a separate order, Wright chastised DC for seeking attorneys’ fees exclusively against Toberoff, saying “the entire motion smacks of animus.” However, he didn’t rule on DC’s claims of unfair competition under California law, saying their “presently moot” because of other decision. As Variety notes, that could change on appeal.
There’s also the matter of the rights to Superboy, as well as certain elements from promotional ads for Action Comics #1 (the 2008 ruling granted DC ownership of the iconic cover image as well as the right “to exploit the image of a person with extraordinary strength who wears a black and white leotard and cape”).
Last month, Wright confirmed the January decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Siegel heirs relinquished any claims to Superman in a 2001 agreement with DC, overturning the 2008 ruling granting them half ownership of the first Man of Steel story in Action Comics #1. At the time, that ruling appeared to pave the way for Shuster’s nephew to reclaim the artist’s copyright stake later this year, which would have stripped the publisher of many of Superman’s defining elements, including his origin, his secret identity, Lois Lane and certain aspects of his costume and powers (super-strength and super-speed.
However, a federal judge determined in October 2012 that the copyright-termination notice filed in 2003 by Shuster’s estate was invalidated by a 20-year-old agreement with DC in which the late artist’s sister Jean Peavy relinquished all claims to Superman in exchange “more than $600,000 and other benefits,” including payment of Shuster’s debts following his death earlier that year and a $25,000 annual pension for Peavy. That was followed in January by the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the Siegel heirs had accepted a 2001 offer from DC that permits the publisher to retain all rights to Superman (as well as Superboy and The Spectre) in exchange for $3 million in cash and contingent compensation worth tens of millions — and therefore were barred from reclaiming a portion of the writer’s copyright to Action Comics #1.