With most of the attention given to the series of lawsuits between the heirs of Jerry Siegel and DC Comics, it would be easy to forget that there was another creator of Superman–Joe Shuster–and his estate was also suing DC to terminate the copyright for the character. Unfortunately, while the courts ruled in favor of the Siegel’s case in 2008, the Shuster’s attempt to take back their share of Superman ended today in failure.
The Hollywood Reporter tells us that Judge Otis D. Wright (sounds almost like a role Groucho Marx might have played, doesn’t it?) has ruled the Shuster family does not have the right to terminate their copyright with DC Comics due to a 1992 agreement the family made with the corporation.
When Joe Shuster died in 1992, his sister, Jean Peavy, filed an affidavit stating she was Joe Shuster’s successor and sole heir. She then requested money from DC to pay the debts Shuster left behind with his passing. DC made good on Shuster’s debts, but told Peavy that it would be the final time they would do such a thing, and that from that point forward, the Shuster family would forego any rights to the character, a condition Jean Peavy readily accepted.
In 2004, Jean’s son Mark Peavy, represented as the Siegel’s are by Marc Toberoff, filed a notice of termination for the Superman copyright as per the Copyright Act of 1976, which went into effect in 1978. Since Jean Peavy’s agreement with DC was made after 1978 and essentially was her waiving the family’s right to terminate the copyright, Judge Wright denied Mark Peavy’s copyright termination.
Where does the case go from here? Through a lengthy appeals process. But if Wright’s decision holds up under appeal, DC will hold on to half of Superman, no matter what, forever. This weakens the Siegel families’ position in their ongoing legal battles with DC/Time Warner and any settlement negotiations they’d undergo with DC in the future. The fact that DC will hold half the copyright and is backed by a multimillion dollar corporation that can afford the high-priced lawyers to litigate any situation endlessly gives them the upper hand.
For a run down of the history of Superman’s rights issues, read the feature article I wrote about it here.