In a surprise ruling yesterday, a California Federal Court judge granted Warner Bros.’ request for summary judgment in the never-ending legal battle for control of the Man of Steel, ruling that a 1992 agreement between DC Comics and Joe Shuster’s sister, Jean Peavy, meant that the publisher was potentially granted permanent ownership of Shuster’s share of the character’s copyright, pending appeal.
Judge Otis D. Wright issued an 18 page ruling in favor of Warner Bros. and DC Comics yesterday, dismissing the argument made by Mark Warren Peavy – Shuster’s nephew – and attorney Marc Toberoff that a 1992 agreement between DC Comics and Jean Peavy that saw the publisher handle debts left following Shuster’s death and a transference (to his siblings) and increase in an annual pension in exchange for relinquishing any termination rights to DC’s ownership of all of Shuster’s co-creations for the company was invalid. Strongly disagreeing with the arguments put forward by Peavy and Toberoff – the ruling repeatedly points out that they “have offered no evidence in support of” their positions, going on to mention where their argument seemingly contradicts itself in the citation of particular legal cases used to prove precedent – Wright found no reason to disagree with Warners and DC’s position that it has, since 1992, held Shuster’s share of the character in permanent possession.
“It’s really straightforward,” explained Brendan McFeely – an attorney at Kane Kessler, PC, in New York City, who has represented comic book creators – to ComicsAlliance. “The facts are that Shuster’s heir (his sister, Jean Peavy) made a deal with DC Comics (negotiating with Paul Levitz) in 1992. In the course of that negotiation, which happened after Joe Shuster’s death in ’92, she got DC to agree to pay the final debts of Shuster’s estate and to increase survivor benefits that DC was obligated to pay to Shuster’s heirs. In return, and after Levitz apparently told her straight out ‘This agreement would represent the author/heir’s last and final deal with DC, and would fully resolve any past, present, or future claims against DC,’ she sent DC a letter that, among other things, said that she would not attempt ‘to reclaim the Superman copyright.’ Because this happened in 1992 (after the passage of the 1976 copyright act that allowed for termination of copyright grants), the judge found that this renegotiation constitutes the Shuster heirs’ final waiver of any right to terminate the copyright grant. So they’re stuck with the ’92 agreement.” McFeely said he expects Peavy to appeal.
This ruling leaves DC in permanent control – barring legal appeal of Wright’s ruling – of 50% of the character, with the remaining 50% due to revert to the heirs of Jerry Siegel, Shuster’s partner, next year. Except that that second part is also somewhat uncertain, currently; a November 5 hearing will allow the court to hear Warners/DC’s appeal against the copyright reversion to the Siegel estate, and Warners has recently filed a separate lawsuit against attorney Toberoff (who also represents the Siegels), accusing him of violating three court orders, making misrepresentations to the court and submitting false declarations during the course of the two fights for Superman copyright.
Even if Warners doesn’t manage to convince the court of Toberoff’s misdeeds or its right to control all of the Superman copyright, yesterday’s ruling means that DC will still be able to publish Superman comics without any interruption; under US copyright law, those with co-author status – which DC possesses, thanks to the 1992 agreement with Peavy – have the right to exploit the property in whatever way deemed necessary, as long as it provides accounting for all profits generated in doing so. In other words: Superman is staying in the DCU, no matter what happens with the Siegel lawsuit. All that remains now is to see how much of the character it will own by the time the dust has settled.
By: Graeme McMillan