Warner Bros. Wins ‘Superman’ Copyright Case Against Joe Shuster’s Heirs

Published 3 years ago by , Updated February 27th, 2013 at 2:09 pm,

Warner Bros Win Superman Lawsuit Against Shusters Warner Bros. Wins Superman Copyright Case Against Joe Shusters Heirs

Warner Bros. has been embroiled in legal troubles regarding the copyright of Superman (and derivative properties like Superboy) more times than they’ve made successful Superman films.* Most damningly, in 2008, a federal court ruled that the heirs of Jerry Siegel – co-creator of Superman – could reclaim 50% of Superman’s rights in 2013.

Now, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright has ruled that the heirs of Superman’s other creator – Joe Shuster – have no claim to those rights, as Jean Peavy, Shuster’s sister, struck a deal with DC Comics in 1992 covering her late brother’s debts (in addition to paying her $25,000 every year for the rest of her life).

In the deal, DC’s then Executive Vice President, Paul Levitz, warned Peavy that by taking the deal she’d be “fully resolv[ing] any past, present or future claims against DC.”

You can read the full ruling over at The Hollywood Reporter, but that’s the gist. Joe Shuster’s heirs, for the foreseeable future, will have no claim to Superman and the rights thereof.

I’m sure we’ll hear a collective sigh of relief (or some sort of ‘hurrah’) from those fans who think that Joe Shuster’s heirs are just being greedy and don’t deserve the Superman rights. And, on the other end of the spectrum, creators’ rights activists will probably be considerably less thrilled. Still, had Jean Peavy never signed a pact with DC in 1992, the Shuster heirs’ attempt to recapture Superman’s rights might’ve had a clearer path to success.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Warner Bros. Wins Superman Copyright Case Against Joe Shusters Heirs

With all that said, this ruling has no bearing whatsoever on the federal court’s previous ruling that Jerry Siegel’s heirs could reclaim 50% of Superman’s rights – including the origin story, the iconic costume, Clark Kent, and everything else from Action Comics #1 (which would leave Warner Bros. things like Lex Luthor, the power of flight, and Kryptonite).

Warner Bros., of course, is appealing that decision, and a hearing on the matter (and various other claims) will take place on November 5th, 2012.

The next Superman film – Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill as Superman himself – is in post-production currently and hits theaters June 14th, 2013.

(*But perhaps not as many times as they’ve made unsuccessful Superman films? Zing.)

Follow me on Twitter @benandrewmoore.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Header image drawn by John Cassaday

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  1. Interesting news, of course the real deal is how the Siegel case pans out. Lets hope no matter what happens Warner is able to cut some kind of deal to keep doing Superman material. Even if it meant sharing.. OH! parish the thought…

  2. When I saw the headline, I got excited. But then when I discovered that this was about Shuster’s heirs’ claims, not Siegel, I was considerably less so. Honestly, this case doesn’t mean much.

  3. This is probably a dumb question… but I thought DC Comics owned Superman, not Warner Brothers. Would like to know how DC fits into all this.

    • Warner own DC

    • DC is owned by WB. They’re essentially just the publishing house, not really the rights owners.

  4. The right decision was made. I understand that DC has paid the Siegel and Shuster families over $4 million since 1975, so basically this says it all about the case. The 1992 agreement made by the Shuster family sealed their fate. As it stands now, it’s 50-50 between DC/ WB and the Siegel family, but the DC/ WB have more power with the Superman trademarks that are separate from copyright. Now we can continue to get Superman comics as we know them. I wonder if this means a return to the classic costume with red underwear.

    • I certainly hope not. I dude running around with his underwear over his trousers should not be treated as a hero…

  5. My guess is that WB and the Siegle heirs settle out of court before the court date. Doesn’t do anyone any good to drag it through the courts and it’s not like the Siegle heirs are looking to start printing their own Superman comics or making their own movies anyways. Just looking to make sure their taken care of for their father/grandfather’s work.

  6. If there really was a deal made then the courts probably ruled correctly. Creators’ rights activists are fighting for a good cause but they can’t rationally just support the side of the creators *every* time a dispute like this comes up. If someone made a deal, they should honour it in good faith.

    Could the family have made more money overall if they’d strictly kept it off the table until now? Probably, yes, but it doesn’t automatically mean they’re entitled to. They decided to give up a valuable property for some financial benefit, and if no one strong-armed them then I don’t see why they should be raising a ruckus over the fact that they’re only getting SOME amount of money a year rather than a truckload.

    • No, they’ll licence the character to Warner Bros. The family would then get royalties on everything the Superman IP makes in future.

  7. At least if Warner Bros. has the rights then we’ll still get superman material. If it goes to the families, then what? Are they just going to let Superman rot and do nothing with those rights?

  8. I read a letter written by Siegel’s daughter the other day… apparently WB hasn’t paid them anything even though they won the case a few years ago. There’s talk of a lot of foul play from WB’s end, but then again, you can’ trust everything you read – there’s always more to it and different sides to the story.

    I really hope they can come to an understanding though: let DC comics keep the rights to Superman (because let’s face it, what is Siegel’s daughter going to with it? – Superman belongs at DC) and just give her a big fat check (or lots of smaller fat checks for the rest of her life).

    • Be funny if she got the rights back & sold them o Marvel out of spite :)

  9. the federal court’s previous ruling that Jerry Siegel’s heirs could reclaim 50% of Superman’s rights – was if WB didn’t make another superman movie before a certain date in 2013 correct?

    • I don’t recall ever reading anything like that.
      To be honest I can’t see how making a movie before a certain date would have anything to do with the Siegel family’s rights to the character, trademark and franchise.

      If it were only movie rights at stake, I could see how that would factor in, but the court ruled in favor of Siegel’s estate reclaiming 50% of the rights to the character, and is allowed to a cut of the profits – profits that (according to Siegel’s daughter) hasn’t been paid to Siegel’s estate yet.

      • This all might be bleeding together for me. The way the whole making movies thing plays into it is that WB/DC had to make a movie every four years as part of the deal with the families.

        Years went by with no new movies and finally DC started working on Superman fly by, superman lives/reborn, a Superman/Batman movie none of which got too far. DC tried to argue that the money they spent on Tim burton’s version superman lives/reborn was good enough to show they were serious about making a movie. After legal battles defined dates where outlined for DC. Thats part of the reason why superman returns was a bit rushed, they were trying to get it in before a certain date.

        This all comes down to money and the families are suppose to get some superman movie money every four years or so if not the rights go back to them so they can do with it what they want.

        That was my recollection of it.

        • That’s very interesting.
          I haven’t read anything like that, but you might very well be right (the whole Superman-rights-issue has been going on for longer than I’ve been in existence, so I’m hardly an expert ;)).

          I just hope all this stuff gets sorted out soon.

        • I’m not sure where you heard/read that, but I’m pretty sure none of that is true.

          • Part of the 2009 ruling the Judge ruled that is WB did not begin production on a Superman film by 2011, then the Shuster and Siegel estates would be able to sue for lost revenue on any unproduced film.

            There were other ruliings that called out timeframes for the films and what the heirs would be able to do or get if those timeframes were not met.

            • Like i said this is all bleeding together for me and I might be wrong with some of the details thats why i was orginaly asking the question in the first place… i give up keeping up on this stuff a long time ago but it seems it never gets resolved just becomes more complicated.

            • Well, what you just said there has nothing to do with what you said previously. I haven’t heart or read that either, though. Maybe you should provide a source/link.

  10. I hope they can settle this once and for all. I realize the heirs had nothing to do with the creation, but they would have stood to benefit if the creators had been paid something-approaching-fair in the first place. DC could have long ago recognized how much money they were making and arranged to make sure they owned Superman. That involves some compensation or taking your chances with lawyers and juries. They made their choice.

    On the radio, I heard an interview with the guy who came up with the James Bond guitar rift. He was about twenty and they paid him $15 bucks. There was some later “agreement” in the late nineties, almost 40 years later. It’s ridiculous that during all that time they never considered giving him a cut. There’s no way of knowing how much that music contributed to the success of the franchise, but I would think it’s pretty high. If not, let them come up with some different music. DC could easily make up a Superman-like character.

  11. i just hope that – man of steel – comes on june 2013 to cinema,because i have a bad feeling that they could delay the date back like -gi. joe- ,-robocop- and -elysium-

  12. This is from my sister, who specializes in Intellectual Property and Trust laws.

    She said simply put ” It is not what Superman can gain, it is a percentage of what Superman has gained. In theory, they are pro-rating what they think they should be owed to them, as heirs or family of those who created. Now based on what she has, Superman and Clark Kent and Origin are the heirs, DC Owns Parts of the Superman Mythos, with that. The Heirs can claim Superman, but cannot do much with him, as his main nemesis belongs to DC, and the same holds true for DC, As they cannot use Superman Origins, Clark Kent.

    Now the twist is, Man of Steel, is DC. Therefore they can, and have produced a movie, hence the costume designed, yes sperating the Underwear was a big difference, changing his origin is a big difference. She laymen terms.

    You can buy the car, but the company owns the engine, steering wheel and Gas Pedal, you own The Car, doors, gas tank, radio and everything else.

    Now what company wants to sell a car and own the engine and steering wheel and gas pedal, and what owner wants a car without those?

    • I mean, you say the heirs can’t do much with Superman, but I beg to differ. Kevin McClory got the rights to remake Thunderball as Never Say Never Again with James Bond. The Siegels have gotten even more than that, in terms of rights to the character himself. So who’s to say they wouldn’t take it somewhere else to be published with new villains, etc.?

      It’s been done before. It could happen again.

      • I know very little about this particular case currently, but Kevin McClory wrote the screenplay for Thunderball with Ian Fleming years before the Bond films ever came out and Fleming wrote the eventual novel based on their shared screenplay, so McClory had a pretty good case for the rights to remake Thunderball. Unfortunately, it seems that in most cases comic book companies fight tooth and nail to pay what should naturally be owed to the creators of the characters that they publish and have gotten very wealthy from.

        Case in point, it was very close to the release of the first Chris Reeve Superman film that the credits were going to read Superman created by DC comics. Neal Adams fought for Siegel and Schuster to be recognized and paid for the character they created and at the last minute the movie credits were changed and both men received a sum of money.

        • I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, but it’s worth pointing out that the Siegels already did win. Since they wrote Action Comics #1 of their own accord before taking it to DC Comics (formerly National Allied Publications) – in other words, it was not work-for-hire – ultimately, everything from that book is theirs. So we’ll see how this goes. I don’t disagree that Warners will likely fight tooth and nail, and it seems like no matter what, the massive corporation always wins out on these things, but you never know what could happen.

          • Right. I should’ve added that Siegel and Schuster initially got both credit and pensions when the first Superman film came out, and indirectly got a lot of creators fired up about their rights to their creations, with varying degrees of success. I do know it got renegotiated later but I’m lost on the details after that.

            This case is specifically complicated because it’s a: not one but two creators (who’re both deceased), and b: it’s Superman, the most recognizably famous superhero ever, and definitely not created under a work for hire agreement.

            I’ll be curious to read more up on this, as well as the issue of whether the rights to Superman could revert if a movie isn’t made every four years or whatever. I think that actually was the case with Fantastic Four, but that’s the first time I’ve heard it applied to Superman.

            Bob Kane did quite well for himself on Batman from what I understand, I wonder what initial foresight he had that so many others struggled with from a business perspective?

          • you stupid

  13. I was rooting for the heirs, DC has done tons of damage to the character and they completely ripped them off in my opinion. Bummer for the heirs i guess huh… but i got a feeling they’ll sue them again for it.

  14. Kane’s forsight was that when he initially signed the contract with National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics)he was underage. When it was time to renew, the original contract was found to be invalid. Kane’s new contract was very favorable for him – it had legal rights of reversion and he could veto the sale of Batman to another company if National was ever inclined to do so. Later, using profits from the Batman television show, DC bought out his contract entirely, paying him more NOT to write and draw the comic book than they were to create it.

    • I know this is an old comment but Kane lied about being under age to get out of the deal and took all the credit for Batman even though if it wasn’t for Bill Finger the character probably would’ve been a flop.