Judge Rules That Warner Bros. Owns Superman (For Now)

Published 2 years ago by , Updated March 22nd, 2013 at 10:03 am,

Vintage Superman Comic Books Judge Rules That Warner Bros. Owns Superman (For Now)

The legal war for the rights to Superman has been raging for so long now, it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t. At one point, things looked incredibly dour for Warner Bros., DC Comics’ parent company, as a judge had awarded Jerry Siegel’s heirs the rights to the elements of Superman as created in Action Comics #1 (Krypton, the costume, Clark Kent, etc.), leaving Warners with elements created in subsequent comics (Lex Luthor, kryptonite, the all-important Cyborg Superman, etc.).

More recently, however, things have been going Warner Bros.’ way, starting with a ruling in October from Judge Otis Wright that the heirs of Superman’s other creator, Joe Shuster, have no claim to Superman’s copyright. Apparently, Shuster’s sister struck an agreement in 1992 to forego any “past, present, or future claims against DC” if the comic book company would pay her $25k a year and cover her brother’s debts.

Now the other shoe has dropped.

On Wednesday, Judge Otis Wright ruled that a deal struck between the Siegel heirs and Warner Bros. in 2001 was binding and that the Siegels have no claim to the copyright at present. The Siegels’ lawyer, Marc Toberoff, had tried to argue that said deal was not enforceable, saying, “DC anticipatorily breached [the contract] by instead demanding unacceptable new and revised terms as a condition to its performance; accordingly, the Siegels rescinded the agreement [via letters] and DC abandoned the agreement.”

New 52 Superman by Jim Lee Judge Rules That Warner Bros. Owns Superman (For Now)

The all-new, all edgy Superman from Geoff John’s ‘Justice League’

But according to Wright, there was no such rescission. The Siegels would’ve had to send a proper notice to Warners and DC in order to (potentially) legally rescind the agreement, and the letters traded between the two parties in 2002 don’t qualify, despite Toberoff’s argument to the contrary. Still, Otis Wright’s ruling doesn’t preclude the Siegel heirs from filing a breach of contract suit in the future

So what does this all mean? In short, it means that Warner Bros. and DC Comics are the current owners of Superman and there’s no immediate concern that they could lose the character’s rights (not even 50% of them) to the Siegels. But you can pretty much guarantee that the Siegels won’t stop here – per Wright’s ruling, there’s definitely a basis for a breach of contract suit, as Warner Bros. failed “to provide a royalty statement to the Siegels by March 31, 2001, as agreed in the October 19, 2001 Letter, and failed to pay or offer to pay the Siegels their royalties.

In fact, it’s very possible that this thing could go all the way to the Supreme Court – that is, if the two parties don’t reach a settlement anytime soon.

What do you think of the ruling, Screen Ranters? Let us know in the comments.

Man of Steel hits theaters June 14th, 2013.


Follow me on Twitter @benandrewmoore.

Sources: The Hollywood Reporter

Follow Ben Moore on Twitter @benandrewmoore
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  1. woof!

  2. Family of the creators of Superman should own these rights.

    • Because the families are OBVIOUSLY interested in creative aspects on the characters. From reading this, all they want is money to pay off their habits.

      • It doesn’t really matter why they want the rights, though. The only thing that matters is the law. I mean, in fairness, you can’t make money off the character without utilizing the creative aspects therein, so if they want to make money, they’re automatically interested in the creative aspects (well, as much as Warner Bros. is).

        • Of course all that matters is law. But this seems no different then giving the rights to uninterested party. I don’t know their intentions but their intentions don’t seem to be much of anything. Its like land owners. They will sit on their pot of gold forever when it could be used for something more useful like a fire station/hospital or even a park for kids to play. Just sell the deed.

          • Laws be damned, this is morally wrong. Why should my great-great-grandchildren and assorted descendants for generations to come, that I neither know nor care about(and vice versa), still be allowed to mooch off the fruits of my labour instead of working for a living in their own right?

            Many classical authors believed that while their works belonged to them for their lifetime, they should afterwards go to the public domain. I very much believe it’s Superman’s turn.

            • All Superman fans need to read Brad Ricca’s new book.” SUPER BOY’S .” It’s an amazingly well researched history of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, and describes in detail the relationship of the creators with DC Comics. While yes, on face value it would seem that Jerry & Joe’s families should own Superman, the reality was DC was an invaluable partner skilled in promoting the property.
              You will also discover that the Siegel’s attorney was maneuvering to take sole ownership of Superman for himself.
              Read, ” SUPER BOY’S.”… there’s more to this story than meet the eye !

      • And all DC wants is money too duh. Its not about creativity really. The family should win to sent an example. Too many creators are shoved aside by big companies like DC and Marvel. If the creator creates a character, they should damn well have some rights to that character

        • Sofia Stewart, an African-American writer whose story “The Third Eye” inspired THE MATRIX and THE TERMINATOR (and their respective sequels) has won her copyright enfringement lawsuit and will receive the biggest payoff in the history of Hollywood. Gross receipts from both franchises total $2.5 Billion.

          The judge ruling implies, expresses or we must infer that Warner Bros. was a party this plagiarism.

      • Or maybe they want the rights because they feel (justifiably so, based on everything I’ve read over the past 40 years) that the creators got ripped off big time.

    • I feel that their original compensation is not entitled to be given to the family. Both Seigel and Shuster were given 20k a year until they died by Warner as well as given credit for creating the character in any form of him released. His family imo does not deserve money anymore. As an artist if i sell my design/idea to a company for a set price, 20k a year being more than fair, then i would not expect anything more after if i signed a contract.

    • There has in the past been an American ethos against copyright in perpetuity; this started to breakdown with Disney extending protection beyond 75 years toward infinity some time ago. Where the law presently stands on this subject…may reside among the 9-headed Muse that is our highest court.

      As for the Siegel-legal situation, a judge often shows his/her bias in favor of the plaintiff or defendent (depending, of course) as the lawsuit leap-frogs its way from administrative to appellate and back…or forth toward the Supremes. It’s “a coin toss” how this one will end up; my guess, Warner Bros. will throw the Siegels a bone (probably a large one) and retains the rights to Superman…in perpetuity.

  3. Keep it with WB and DC. Pay royalties to the family. Simple.

  4. WB screwed up with big time with Superman Returns and Green Lantern. The rights for Superman should revert back to the estate of the creators. WB or any other studio can pay for the rights. BOOM

    • They’d have to pay extortionately large amounts pretty much forever. And deal with all manner of restrictions both in print and on screen. And sooner or later, like Universal(Hulk rights) and Lionsgate(Punisher rights) the rights would get economically non-viable to retain and revert. What would happen to Superman’s status in the DCU then?

  5. If they do lose supes they can replace him with captain marvel/shazam, and batman will become head of JL.

    • That’s just a terrible idea. Superman is the FACE of DC and the JLA. He is the most iconic character in DC comic history and probably all comic books period. He isn’t easily replaced. Absent, yeah that can happen. But not replaced.

      • Maybe before the 80′s he was. Not anymore more though, Batman is the prime reason people come back for more in DC. It’s always been like that, I’ve seen more kids more excited whenever Batman shows up in something. Superman started the whole traditional superhero thing, but as of right now he is not the face of DC IMO. And unless they pull something off to change that, Batman will be the poster boy DC’s poster boy for a long time

        • poster boy for DC’s poster boy…?????

          *DC’s poster boy

        • Superman is not really all that popular anymore as he was a few years ago. He is just alittle too good for this day and age.

          • Well the movie will probably change that

      • Shazam was actually more popular than supes when he was introduced and wasnt a Dc character and Dc sued because of it, claiming they were ripping off supes.

  6. Personally, I have never liked the state of our copyright laws. Honestly, how does a person or company own an idea? Your realy can’t – the entire concept is utter fiction. It is one thing for an individual to benefit from their idea and be allowed to profit from it, but for their heirs to own that idea forever is just ridiculous. I’m not even talking about Superman specifically, but all of copyright and patent law. Give copyrights say 50 years and that’s it. Plenty of time and opportunity to benefit from the idea and then after that period of time everything should move into the public domain.

    • you can’t copyright an idea. you can’t copyright the idea of a guy who is the sole survivor of a destroyed planet, and has superpowers because he came to earth. that you can’t do. according to the law ideas are not copyrightable.

      but you can copyright the form, or the precise description that the idea is gonna translate into. you can copyright the above mentionned guy being dressed is red and blue, with a red cape and a big “s” on his chest. and even then you have to really be descriptive because it’s that form of the idea that you’re gonna copyright… it can be confusing, I hope I made it clear enough…

    • This 50 year limit on copyrighted material was the standard before Disney appealed to Congress to pervert the limit to something like in perpetuity (re: renewals). I agree; I’ve written three novels myself but feel nothing should be under the copyright protection FOREVER. DC characters older than 50 years should have long been retired to public domain, but he who has the gold make the rules, and Warner Bros/DC has lots of gold.

      • Sofia Stewart, an African-American writer whose story “The Third Eye” inspired THE MATRIX and THE TERMINATOR (and their respective sequels) has won her copyright enfringement lawsuit and will receive the biggest payoff in the history of Hollywood. Gross receipts from both franchises total $2.5 Billion.

        The judge ruling implies, expresses or we must infer that Warner Bros. was a party this plagiarism.

  7. Let’s say that Jerry Siegel’s heirs gains the ownership of Superman back, then what? I don’t think that they would open up a comic book company, hire some writers and artist or continue pursuing movie deals. Us fans are the one who would feel the effect of this lawsuit the most. Settling for royalties should be enough, it’s not like any of the creators heirs contribute any creative contribution and are there any one of them actually work in the comic industry? DC still place Siegel and Shuster’s name as the creator next to any writer who’s working on the title.

  8. This is a classic problem with copyright laws, especially with regard to characters who are initially created by a person or group of people, but then are subsequently used in future works written by different people, and possibly published by different companies. Who really owns the rights to that character? The initial creator, or the company that publishes works featuring the character for commercial gain? For example, no one doubts that Stephen King owns the rights to his books and characters. Of course he needed to make deals with publishing houses to sell his books. But no one thinks of King’s characters as being associated with the publishing house. Can anyone even name his publisher? But why is it that Batman is immediately associated with DC Comics, but not with Bob Kane or Bill Finger? Marvel and Stan Lee are certainly more synonymous, but part of that is because Lee is still alive and is the very public face of the company.

    • that kind of things are typically described in contracts. the contract between the original creator and the publishing company is supposed to clarify that. and they can be quite complex. that is the reason why you need a really good lawyer who can help you navigate the intricacies of contracts and protect your interests in the long run…

  9. This is one of the reason Man Of Steel Costume is what it is. Ok, So the family gets the rights to Superman based on their heritage. Well was it explicit that they Siegel and Shuster willed Superman to them? See this is why I have no faith in WB/DC To do anything right.

    You set and establish rules.
    Were the Rights willed to you and can you produce a will?
    What were your creative input into Superman. As such, none of you were born when Superman was created.
    If you maintain the rights, No Company or Studio will produce anything, because the Movie and TV Rights belong to WB.
    You gain control of certain aspects of Superman, but you lose certain aspects. So they cant use The Mythology, The Costume, Certain characters. WB/DC Get the rest. Seeing how they can produce movies and tv studios and do not have to pay you a dime.

    There are so many ways a smart lawyer would force the families to give up the rights, but they did not pursue it, and I doubt they had a high profile lawyer.

  10. I think greed is killing Superman. How sad.

    • I think Doomsday did that. Oh and Superman Returns lol

  11. And the Band plays on,.. Ball of Confusion

  12. The thing is…either way this goes it is about money, so condemning the family for wanting to make money off their relative’s work, is a bit harsh considering you should also condemn WB/DC for wanting to make money off of it. There has only been speculations and assumptions as to how much the families asked for, and saying that they need to stop being greedy is kind of foolish on all of your parts. In truth, the corperations in question are making billions off of superman through films, comics and merchandising, and I highly doubt that the families are demanding their entire, or even a marginal percentage of their profit margin. Don’t assume you know something until you know it.

    • The difference between WB/DC making money off it and the relatives is the WB/DC are investing money into it to make money off of it what are the relatives doing what are they investing nothing but I agree I think once the original creators died i don’t think royalties should be paid any longer. there is nothing about superman that Segels heirs actually made or created

  13. I think at some point they’ll settle the whole thing out of court. These rulings can get to the point where no one ultimately benefits. Copyright and patent law is getting ridiculous something needs to get worked out on those fronts to be sure…

  14. Yeah my question is if the Seinfeld get the rights?… What’s going to happen to superman?.. It’s not like they’re interested in comics he’s just gonna be in limbo

  15. If the Siegel family gets the rights…they would probably sell the rights to Marvel just to mess with DC

    • Marvel would not take them. Because they would not have the entire Superman archive

      And Disney would not want to drag it out for the complete Superman, plus they could not do any comics or movies. As WB/DC Have exclusive movie rights.

  16. The ruling stinks. As does the “all-new, all edgy Superman,” and the rest of the “New 52″ nonsense. Of course I’m a child of the Silver Age and started reading comics back when the old Adam West “Batman” TV series was still in its original network run on ABC, so I guess that makes me a dinosaur and that my opinion doesn’t mean much to the young readers who gobble up the modern tripe as quickly as the publishers can spew it out. All I know is that DC used to be my favorite comic book publisher but these days I wouldn’t pay the old-fashioned dime – let alone the outrageous prices they charge for comic books these days – for the junk they’re publishing now. Thank goodness for all those boxes of old comics I still have out in the garage.

  17. Warner Bros. should own the characters. It’s like if Stan Lee’s family wanted the rights to Spider-Man, if they don’t plan on doing anything with the character the one who will do something with it should have it. Superman is fine where it is.

    • Again, why would they not do something with the character? It makes no sense to own him and not doing anything with him. They can’t make money off him if they don’t do something with him.

      It’s also not analogous to Stan Lee at all, because Lee was salaried at Marvel when he co-created his characters, he claims they were work-for-hire, and he was paid more money than both Superman creators combined (times a thousand). It’s more like what Marvel and Stan Lee did to Jack Kirby, which was pretty unfair, to the point that many people believe have the rights of many ofthe characters should revert to his heirs.

  18. The Idea was, as soon as the first hint of a substantial lawsuit was evident, was that the families of the creators knew that if they got what they wanted, they would be able to shop the Superman character to any other comics publisher for any sum they wanted, which was their way of thinking. They thought if they could take Superman to a publisher like Dark Horse or Image, they could write their own check for the character. Which would mean that there could have conceivably be two different Supermen in the comics world. The original Ideas as created by the originators and the newer version by DC.

    It actually could have been interesting to see two different superman characters if that happened, which I don’t believe it will.

  19. This is such a complex situation. The creators of Superman were obviously victim of the times, as one can argue that back then (more so than now) creative forces did not really have the benefits and leverage they had today, especially if they were not aided by someone knowledgeable about the business such as Bob Kane’s father. We have seen creative talents such as Jack Kirby, Bill Finger, Gary Kurtz (etc) without any recognition they deserve for their MAJOR contributions to the eventual product. Beyond recognition, many creators were negated suitable monetary reward/compensations and creative control over their own creations. Some were even fired after creating such an ingenious product.

    On the other side, you have the company- in this case Warner Brothers and DC Publishing company. A deal was made, an agreement was forged, and DC, which also mean WB, own the creation that is Superman. Even while the circumstances and relation between the Siegels/Shusters and DC may not have gone ideally, DC as a product of the time gained the rights to the character and the established mythology. Furthermore, many will say that the family(ies) deserve the rights and monetary benefit due to being heirs of the creators of Superman, yet DC being the legal owner of such property(ies) has hired and employed other writers, artists, and creative talents over decades to create and expand certain aspects of the character and mythology that are highly associated with character and related properties.

    If the families represent the efforts and hard work of their ancestors for their inception of Superman, DC is very much the representative of a huge body of creative forces that own, expand, and create properties and attributes as well other revisions and inceptions of Superman. Now, the issue is that these rights can be defined, separated, etc but this plan of action is illogical and not beneficial to either side. The families may not directly created the character, but DC has. The creators garnered retroactive compensations and recognition for their role of the inception of what is Superman. The families argue that due to their relation to the people involved with the creative process that they deserve benefits as well as those individuals. But DC was also involved with the creative process then, and continue to this days through their proxy of writers and artist, etc.

    Do the families of current writers and artist have any right as well to the properties that their kin have creative input on? Do current families have any legal leverage of benefits due to the fact that a member of the family decided to get rid of Superman’s underwear, or alter the origin slightly, create a new character or such? I am obviously stretching out here, but that is the point: where does the line of creative OWNERSHIP end?

    As far as it is concerned the families were not directly involved with the creative process that resulted in Superman. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character and basic mythology while DC hired them, paid, put input to the character over the years and eventually paid the creators their due and the recognition they deserved.

    The families are obviously upset that their relatives did not receive the benefits they may have deserved initially and even currently, which is unfortunate, but they are not Jerry or Joe–if they were still alive, the case may be different, but the sad truth is they are not. And prior to their respective death’s DC paid the royalties and gave them recognition for a great and powerful symbol/idea: Superman. If DC had not done so prior to their deaths, again the case will be different. The families may have best intentions, but as it is I think DC should just continue pay the royalty their deserve, as legally stated, but nothing more.

    Granted I am not knowledgeable about copyright laws or any of the particular details of these cases, but for better or worse, DC owns the rights to the characters as is and the creators of Superman hae the recognition the deserve. History has been unkind to many creative artists but every time someone reads or watches a Superman story, that someone will see the names of Superman’s true creators and know their legacy has survived and remains strong.