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DC Comics wins crucial victory in Superman legal battle

From Action Comics #1

Handing a major victory to DC Comics, a California federal judge has ruled the heirs of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster surrendered the ability to reclaim their 50-percent interest in the property in a 1992 agreement with the publisher.

While the decision likely will be appealed, for now it means DC and parent company Warner Bros. can use the Man of Steel any way they wish beyond Oct. 26, 2013, when the Shuster estate would have recaptured its copyright to the first Superman story in 1938’s Action Comics #1. However, the companies must account for any profits earned from the property with the family of co-creator Jerry Siegel, which reclaimed its share in 2008 through a provision of the U.S. Copyright Act (the scope of that decision is on appeal). Had the Shuster estate succeeded, DC and Warner Bros. eventually would have been unable to use many of the character’s defining aspects, including his secret identity, his origin, certain elements of his costume and powers (super-strength and super-speed), and Lois Lane — barring a new agreement with the families of the two creators, naturally.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright granted DC’s motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether the Shuster estate’s 2003 copyright-termination notice was invalidated by a 20-year-old agreement with the late artist’s sister Jean Peavy. The publisher had argued the family relinquished all claims to the Man of Steel in 1992 in exchange for “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.

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