Laura Siegel Larson
In a bid to retain full ownership of the Man of Steel, Warner Bros. filed a brief on Friday asking the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a 2008 decision that granted the heirs of Jerry Siegel half the rights to the original Superman story, and to enforce a deal abandoned by the writer’s family seven years earlier. If the 9th Circuit chooses not to rule, the studio wants the case to be remanded to a district court for trial.
In its 117-page brief, Warner Bros. seeks to overturn the earlier ruling that terminated the transfer of copyright to the Superman story in 1938′s Action Comics #1 under the 1976 Copyright Act. The 2008 decision allowed the Siegel family to reclaim many of the Man of Steel’s defining elements, including his costume, Lois Lane, his origin and secret identity — paving the way for the estate of artist Joe Shuster to do the same in 2013 — while leaving Warner Bros. and DC Comics with such later additions as Lex Luthor, kryptonite and Jimmy Olsen. As Hollywood, Esq. reports, the Siegel heirs appealed in December 2011, arguing they should have been permitted to recapture the rights in later Superman comics, which they contend Siegel and Shuster created “on spec,” and then sold to DC for $10 a page.
A federal judge has refused to dismiss Warner Bros.’ lawsuit against the attorney representing the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Variety reports.
The studio filed a 65-page complaint in May 2010 accusing Marc Toberoff, its longtime legal nemesis, of orchestrating “a web of collusive agreements” that led the Siegel family to reject “mutually beneficial” longtime deals with DC Comics and seek to recapture copyright to the Man of Steel. The lawsuit, which hinges on documents stolen from Toberoff’s office and delivered anonymously to Warner Bros., is designed to force him to resign as the lawyer for the Siegels, who in 2008 successfully terminated the original 1938 transfer of copyright for Action Comics #1. The window will open in 2013 for Shuster’s estate to do the same.
Toberoff filed a motion in August 2010 to dismiss the studio’s complaint under California anti-SLAPP laws designed to curb lawsuits intended to intimidate the opposition through delays and legal expense.
However, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright ruled Toberoff had failed to demonstrate that his role as attorney for the Siegel and Shuster heirs is protected under the California statutes. Wright specifically cited a business deal Toberoff struck with the Shuster estate that he characterized as “not an agreement for the provision of legal services, but one concerning the exploitation of Joe Shuster’s creations.” That’s presumably a reference to an arrangement that Warner Bros. charged would give Toberoff and his companies “a controlling financial interest in the families’ collective claims — leaving him as the largest financial stakeholder” in the Man of Steel.
Joanne Siegel, widow of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, passed away on Feb. 12 with her family’s prolonged legal battle with Warner Bros. over the Man of Steel still unresolved.
Although a judge ruled in 2008 that the Siegels had successfully recaptured half of the original copyright to Superman, paving the way for the estate of co-creator Joe Shuster to do the same in 2013, Warner Bros. has continued its increasingly bitter fight for the property. In May the studio went so far as to sue the attorney representing the two families in an effort to force him to resign.
Noting the recent changes in tone and tactics, Joanne Siegel prepared a letter to Time Warner Chairman Jeffrey L. Bewkes just two months before her death asking for an end to such “mean-spirited tactics” as the lawsuit against attorney Marc Toberoff and multiple depositions of herself and daughter Laura Siegel Larson, both of whom were in poor health.
“My daughter Laura and I, as well as the Shuster estate, have done nothing more than exercise our rights under the Copyright Act,” Siegel wrote in the letter, obtained and published by Deadline. “Yet, your company has chosen to sue us and our long-time attorney for protecting our rights. [...] The solution to saving time, trouble, and expense is a change of viewpoint. Laura and I are legally owed our share of Superman profits since 1999. By paying the owed bill in full, as you pay other business bills, it would be handled as a business matter, instead of a lawsuit going into its 5th year.”
The latest turn in the case came just last week, when it was reported that Toberoff had asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine exactly what elements from Superman’s mythology his clients can reclaim as a result of the 2008 court ruling.
Read the full text of the letter after the break.