Legal Woes Could Divide ‘Superman’ Franchise in Two

Published 4 years ago by , Updated March 9th, 2013 at 1:50 pm,

superman man of steel directors Legal Woes Could Divide Superman Franchise in Two

Immediately after Zack Snyder was hired to direct the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, there was already speculation that one of the main reasons he’d landed the gig was that Warner Bros. thought he’d be able to complete the film with minimal turnaround time.

David Goyer’s script evidently had some serious issues that still needed to be addressed, but it was of paramount importance that Man of Steel be ready to hit theaters in the summer of 2012.

The studio’s now or never attitude stems from DC Comics’ ongoing legal battle with the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster. If a settlement can’t be made by 2013, some of the most fundamental aspects of the character’s mythology revert back to the estates of Siegel & Shuster. That obviously puts Man of Steel in the clear  – but what would this mean for potential sequels and future cinematic adaptations?

It’s an unbelievably complicated matter and Variety has a detailed breakdown of the situation. In a nutshell, the heirs of Siegel & Shuster would retain the rights to the character’s iconic costume and his ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” while DC Comics would own the rights to most of Superman’s villains (including Lex Luthor) and the character’s ability to fly.

Variety points out that after 2013, Warner Bros. would still be able to “exploit the Superman projects it’s already made, but under the Copyright Act, the company could not create new ‘derivative’ works based on Action Comics No. 1 and other properties held by the heirs.” Therefore, the studio would be able to produce sequels to Man of Steel, but they would be prohibited from using elements owned by Siegel & Shuster that hadn’t already been utilized in previous films. This arrangement would effectively make another big screen reboot of the property impossible.

In fact – if the rights are split, audiences could be subjected to two separate franchises.

Variety explains:

In a recent article published in the Columbia Journal of the Law & the Arts, Anthony Cheng writes that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner’s decision in Neil Gaiman’s suit against Todd McFarlane “could provide the rationale for both parties to continue legally exploiting” Superman. Posner determined that Gaiman’s “Medieval Spawn” was “sufficiently distinct” to justify a separate character copyright from the original Spawn.

Superman Legal Woes Could Divide Superman Franchise in Two

Essentially, there would be two distinct interpretations of the character – a 1938 Superman owned by Siegel & Shuster and a modern Superman owned by DC Comics. Both parties would then be free to create new works based on these separate versions. This probably wouldn’t be an ideal situation for the Siegel & Shuster estates, however, DC would still own all of the trademarks and international rights – not to mention the fact that their modern version of Superman is the one that’s more firmly ingrained in pop culture.

As messy as things are bound to get if both sides can’t come to some sort of an agreement,  the reality is that it’s just not that simple. Marc Toberoff, the heirs’ attorney, is currently appealing the original court ruling that led to this debacle in an attempt to receive a more definitive answer on who owns what specifically. Meanwhile, DC Comics is pursuing a lawsuit against Toberoff claiming that he “poisoned their relationship with the Siegels and Shusters.

Ironically, the reason for splitting the rights in the first place was to encourage both sides to come together by giving each of them vital components of Superman lore. Otherwise, each party is left with something reminiscent of, but not completely, Superman.

With something so lucrative at stake, there’s certainly still hope that a mutually beneficial arrangement will be made. If not, then Man of Steel could conceivably be the last true Superman movie that fans see for a very long time.

Man of Steel is tentatively scheduled to reach theaters by December of 2012.

Source: Variety.

Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:


Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.

If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. I remember when someone on this site reminded me about all of this and I had to go look up the similar situation with Jack Kirby’s family and Marvel. They have a similar suit working it’s way through court with the same lawyer I believe and it could probably hurt Marvel/Disney and the studios that have the other movie rights if it is in the same vein as this suit.

  2. Well that sucks because Zack Snyder’s Superman is going to blow chunks. Watchmen was unwatchable. Snyder just loves Pic N Save Visual Effects and his all precious slow mo shots.

    The last Superman film was Richard Donner’s Superman which was also the best and most endearing. No one can top Christopher Reeves.

  3. What a mess. I was not aware that Goyers script had so many issues. Could that be the reason Nolan walked away from producing MoS? I have been trying to stay optimistic but this makes me nervous.

    • If you think about it we’ve already seen the 1938 version of Superman, it called Smallville.

  4. But Krypton was also in Acction Comics #1, so does that mean WB could not use Clark, Lois, and Krypton at all since it is the families?? wow, that is a mess!!

  5. I may have to rethink my comment… LOL

  6. Well this is disappointing

  7. I find it really really sad that the children/families of these beloved creators are making cash grabs at our most treasured heroes in attempts to make money. For the good of the memory of the creators and the thousands of loyal fans they cant agree to let our beloved heroes stay where they are/belong? i understand the idea of being compensated but this is just ridiculous. siegel and shuster (and kirby) would be rolling in thier graves. they deprived us of a proper smallville ending, and will most likely ruin man of steel/jla for us as well. i for one, would just settle, but then again i believe in the greater good and not being a money grabbing shortstack motherfather (this is a family website)

    • From what I can recall Kirby had a similar lawsuit while he was alive, so it’s not just the families grabbing for cash. There is a long history and writers and artists having legal issues with their respective companies over rights to these characters and the fact that all these years later billions of dollars are being made off of the work of these people by companies that did nothing to create them.

      The fact is these companies had publishing rights to these ideas and have later used that to mass market and sell someone else intellectual property in other mediums beside print. This was one of the big sticking points that actually made Jim Lee, MacFarland (who is a sue happy greed bag for real) and company leave Marvel in the 90′s to start Image. They saw what was going on with the video games, trading cards, etc. and wanted to be compensated for characters they had created as far as all of this other side money was concerned.

      In all honesty I would never side with the big companies in something like this since they don’t care about anyone but their profit margin anyway, so turnabout is fair play. I mean look at a guy like Philip K Dick who died broke and millions of dollars have been made off of his stories by Hollywood.

      • Like i had said, i’m all for compensation for intellectual properties, but not at the cost of the fans losing the characters they love. we could very well lose our version of superman that we all know, thereby removing him from stories were he is a pivotal player, like his own series, or JLA. All im saying is, yea a corporation is making millions/billions off of a superhero character created by your estate, if an offer were made of several millions of dollars or profit percentage annually to keep the property were it is yet you get paid, basically for doing nothing (aside from maybe a fun cameo ala stan lee in marvel films), just being a part of its creation, why not just accept that for the greater good and be a part of the history ?

        If I were in their shoes, yes, I’d want my money, but if it meant destroying what ive created over somthing as petty as some cash, I would do my best to work out an arrangement that doesnt ruin years of history or dissrespect the fans. essentially, what would superman want you do?

        • Superman was about truth, justice, and fair play. He would want to see the creators compensated fairly for licensing their IP rights.

          All of you bellyaching about how the lawyers are bad need to understand something. When you create IP as a work for hire and it goes on to make millions while all you have is your paycheck, you start to wonder why can’t the company be honorable and give you a small piece of the success?

    • Why should these studios that treat the artists as blue collar workers reap the benefits of their creative work? In an age where corporate entities live on forever, I think it’s only right that the heirs of the artists benefit rather than corporate greed run by Gordon Geckos.

  8. Once again Variety gets the flying part wrong. Flying was legally ruled a “generic power” in the SuperBOY lawsuit of a couple of years ago. So any Marvel character, any DC character, AND THE HEIRS’ SUPERMAN, call all fly. Nobody owns flying. Nobody owns the power of flight. FLIGHT WAS LEGALLY DECLARED A GENERIC POWER. There is no way for DC to stop the heirs’ superman from flying. There is no way for DC to stop Marvel characters from flying. There is no way for the heirs to stop DC’s Superman from flying. Thanks to the Superboy lawsuit, everybody gets to fly!

    • Glad you clarified that about the flying.. I never thought about that !!

    • Now it has been awhile since I looked into the Superboy lawsuit. I can’t remember what elements were introduced in the first Superboy issues. Just like Action Comics #1 and the first few Superman newspaper strips were granted to the heirs, the first few SuperBOY comics were based on S&S’s work. The judge gave those rights back to the heirs because the comic company had printed them without S&S’s approval. They originally pitched the idea, but were turned down. Then S&S went into the war and while they were away, the company started printing the Superboy comic. The judge gave those Superboy elements back to the heirs. I can’t remember what was in those issues. Smallville? Ma and Pa Kent? Lana Lang? Perhaps General Zod. Oh yeah and Superboy. And he flies.

      • Ultimately the SuperBOY lawsuit was never resolved, because the heirs rolled it over into the SuperMAN lawsuit, and that part hasn’t had a judicial ruling yet. So what elements of the SuperBOY comic books the heirs get remains in limbo. A question I have, is what powers did Superboy demonstrate in the first issue? Heat vision? X-ray vision? I know he flies. So my big question is this: If the heirs get original SuperBOY back, they should get him with all his powers (which are all modern SuperMAN’s powers?). Would they have the right to age SuperBOY up and combine him with elements of original Superman (Lois Lane, etc)? Wouldn’t the combination of original Superboy and original Superman equal modern Superman?! Could DC stop Superboy from growing up? Could the heirs do comics and films about the adventures of a teen-age Superboy, with all of modern Superman’s powers? This is one very complicated lawsuit.

        • That is complicated!!

  9. It would make a Justice League movie hard without the Superman we know… Could it be the reason Green Lantern is getting a big push in case Superman is pushed to the side in this lawsuit??

  10. The heir families should have respect for the character that their families created. He is an icon an should continue to be one for generations to come. A legal war between them and DC will ultimately end in a true “death” for Superman if no compromise is made. I agree that the estates of Siegal&Shuster should be compansated for creating Superman originally, but honestly, so many other people have contributed to the Superman mythology that he has become much bigger than them. They should work it out with DC and continue to be a part of it.

  11. Idiots, the lot of them. That includes the Judge who decided to pull a King Solomon and divide Superman up like the proverbial baby. Well, it seems as if both mothers are childish enough to perform the heinous act so that no one gets to enjoy Superman (including us). Epic fail.

    • Agreed. Morons!

  12. From what I have heard yes. If Green Lantern does well, then DC can make a go at film versions of their other properties, and not just have to stick with trying to make a go at another Superman (or Batman) film to keep the interest alive (which has never been dead among us comic book fans). Honestly, I hope the heirs and DC work things out, because in a sense, Jerry and Joe DID get exploited to some degree. Think about it, in the few short years after his first appearance in 1938, Superman blew up in a big way, he had the radio show, cartoons, all the other merchandise and the guys were not getting paid a cent for that beyond what they were getting from doing work for the comic book. They sold an idea that they created together 100% for a chance to see their names in print and to do what they loved, but get paid to do it.

    There is, if you can believe, something similar to this on a fictional level. In Michael Chabon’s book “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, he has two cousins (Jewish to boot), create a fictional superhero in the Golden Age of Comics called the Escapist. The book chronicles their career with a fictional comic book publisher Empire Comics, and the impact what being in the “funny book” business has on their lives. To cut it short, the man who is editor of Empire, tells them a story about himself, and when he worked in the pulps, characters he had created for the pulps branched out into other merchandise forms. He never got a cent of the radio money, and to quote the book, “Now its your turn in the barrel.”

  13. If someone sold the rights of their character to a publisher and in turn that publisher makes millions or even billions of that character, should the creator be able to ask for more?. No.

    What rights do children or grand children have to claim on profits made by something someone in their family created? None.

    If have an idea which i sell to DC which becomes hugely profitable, should I than be able to ask for more money or claim rights to something which i willingly sold? No.

    Contracts were created for a reason, and only in rare cases should they be ignored when determing cases such as these.

    • They sold the rights for a set period of time. That time is up. If the big companies hadn’t bribed Congress into extending copyright, Superman would be in public domain, and anybody could make a movie of him. But companies got greedy, and in an unusual display of good will, Congress said, creators will get in on this money train too. Companies get their copyright extension, and to effectively steal from the public, by denying them what should be in public domain, but creators get a chance to take that extension for themselves. See Congress does have a sliver of shame.

      • Trying to keep a copyright to something isn’t greedy. Why would anyone be willing to give up a copyright to something they own ? It has nothing to do with greed on that particular topic. So if they were not making millions off of it and sold it they would be less greedy for getting rid of it? Superman shouldn’t belong to the public it should belong to DC the company that has been publishing him for decades.

        • IMO copyright should never expire. Once something is yours it should remain yours until you sell it. The thing should never go to the public unless you give it to the public. It should be the owners choice not government mandate.

          • Precisely why Superman, all of it, should go back rightly to the heirs of S&S. DC Comics and WB have profited from their creation long enough. Just as Fox should give the rights to FF, X-Men, and Daredevil back to Marvel.

            • I wish public domain wasn’t so demonized. Sherlock Holmes is in public domain, and there is no end of the stories, and TV shows and movies we get about him. Public domain isn’t death. It is life. It is letting new creators a chance to re-tell, re-shape and breath new life into these characters. Right now Morrison and Loeb and Miller could all be writing stories about their Superman. Pixar could be putting out a Superman animated movie. Sony could be putting out a Superman vs Spider-Man movie. HBO could be running their Superman TV show. Public domain is not the enemy.

              • I haven’t commented here in a while but this is just too good, I totally agree with this comment.

                Imagine the possibilities of Public Domain on Supes – they are endless, we could all get the Supes we want, Darkseid – yes, Doomsday – uh huh…

                Public Domain is not the enemy at all – could we all agree that Star Wars would be better in the public domain than in the hands of George Lucas?

                • Most of the characters people are suing over now were made before the Copyright laws even existed and one has to figure that guys back then were not business savvy at all and even the companies that bought the characters for a song couldn’t imagine the money they would generate now.

                  As for the Public Domain thing, anything made in modern times will probably be tied up in some form or fashion due to the knowledge people have now. The Star Wars example is an interesting one.

                  Lucas already got the merchandise rights from the start when he got Fox to give him those instead of a higher box office percentage. Boy did that work out in his favor ! As it stands by the law though Star Wars wouldn’t be Public until 70 years after Lucas becomes one with the Force. By then if his great grand kids are even still interested it might not matter. Now if there is some way he can will the rights to his kids or even sell them to them before he dies, well then it turns over. If that was an option that is certainly what I would do.

                • Imagine Superman in public domain? Sounds like a night mare. 3 or four superman films and two tv shows all made by crummy studios like Fox and Sony ruining the property? No thanks

            • The rights were rightfully sold so no they should not go back. Not to mention S&S only just barely created Superman they only created maybe 30% of what we know to be Superman now in modern times the rest came from DC comics. Superman would never be the character he was today with out DC comics. Not only would no one care but he’d be lacking most of what makes him matter.

  14. I have a feeling that the heirs will win, but DC/Warner Bros. will buy the rights back from them anyway – resulting in a cool payday for the heirs, and Superman will still remain intact.

    Still, it’s a messy legal battle that needs to end soon for the sake of Superman fans. Good thing DC still has Batman in the meanwhile.

  15. It’s just sad that family of a person who created something are suing for these rights as if they deserve them. They didn’t create superman or expend upon him. A man who is currently no longer alive created him. DC then proceed to expand upon him and make him who he is and actually make him popular. Now the family is capitalizing on a dead relatives concept and DC’s hard work.

      • niether did the grand kids. they still expect some of the cash coming off superman.

      • Well, consider DC/WB printed the character, produced TV shows and movies, and continue to market the character, I’d say they had a HUGE hand in making Superman popular.

        • No, the creators of those TV shows and movies had a hand in making Superman popular. DC merely licensed / rented Superman to those creators. Just like the heirs will license / rent Superman to those who want to make TV shows and movies about him in the future. Just like S&S could have been doing all this time if they had owned Superman. DC will be the first to tell you, that once they sold the right to make a TV show or movie about Superman, they had little, or no, creative input in what those rights buyers did. And the rights buyers were responsible for marketing their own product, which as a side effect included marketing Superman.

      • Marko are you insane? DC had no hand in making superman popular?

        You mean other than building the character up from it’s less than stellar begingings? Creating more than half of what he is known as today?

        Publishing him so that people actually know who he is?

        None of that helped make the character popular?

  16. A quote from Star Wars: ” I Got A Bad Feeling About This” I feel like “Man Of Steel” is being rushed to it’s doom. Lol, it blow for sure if thats the last Superman film for a very long time. Atleast i’ll still have my Christopher Reeve Superman collection to pass the time if things hit the roof.

  17. this is bad news bears that’s what happens when you let a greedy lawyer in the mix with some even greedier talentless people who want nothing more than to suckle off of their dead grandfathers teet and get rich for nothing while the general public suffers for their greed…for shame

  18. I am sorry but who exactly is suffering??? Will any of us suffer because of a comic book character? This is utter stupidity.
    Plain and simple if I created a character and made a lot of money from it I would want my family to benefit for generations. That’s reality. The heirs do have a right for an agreement to be fair. I am not speaking for the lawyers they live by their own rules.

    • This suffering bit makes no sense to me either. Do they imagine that whoever wins control of Superman WON’T make movies about him? WON’T sell merchandise about him? WON’T license cartoons, TV shows, comic books? WON’T license him to appear in others’ works (like a Marvel oneshot, or even showing up in DC books, maybe a Spider-Man movie)? Nobody makes money if Superman isn’t being used. If Superman ownership were to magically fall into any random person’s hands, I guarantee you, a flood of Superman stuff would still come out. If Superman gets split, DC will have to pay for using any element the heirs own, and the heirs would have to pay to use any element DC owns. Each will pay and each will be willing to license to the other – because that is the only way the both make money. No corporation will sit on a billion dollar property just to spite a couple of heirs. No heirs are going to refuse to accept money from DC, just to spite the company. The heirs won’t sell, because they rightly believe they’d get ripped off, and DC will never pay upfront nearly what the IP is worth. But the heirs will more than likely be happy to license / rent their IP to DC (and others) on a case by case basis. So the money keeps rolling in forever. Or at least until Superman goes into public domain.

  19. Even more disgusting is the greedy talentless corporate middle managers, who want nothing more than to suckle off the the teat of dead artists and get rich from their work, all the while denying the artists’ own families from benefiting from their work. Everyone suffers from their greed in not giving over the entire character to the families. Shame on soulless corporations and the scummy managers inhabiting them.

  20. Just some thoughts here… Considering there would be two versions of Superman the 1938/ Siegel and Shuster version and the DC version. Now the families own the right to Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Krypton. So would the DC version be possibly a new identity of Connor Kent or possibly Mon-EL?? Could Conner be the new Man of Steel? I keep hearing DC is going possibly do a reboot of their comics after Flashpoint. Just thinking not saying for sure. DC has to be thinking about this. The thing about it is DC has the trademark, other powers of Superman like heat vision, x-Ray vision, Kryptonite, The Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Metropolis, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, and other supervillians.. so could Conner fill Clark’s place as the New superman for DC… I would hope not. I wish the families and DC could work this out.

    • I think they will work this out,its in all sides best intrest to do so,but only after everything is officially divided up,so all the copyrighted material that belongs to the famlies can properly valued in the market.

  21. I agree with scannato’s post. If things get that bad to that point, so be it. I can only speak for me that i still got plenty of great Superman films & shows to live & get by with.

  22. Thinking back to what a prior iteration of DC did to Fawcett comics, it’s pretty clear that if the company had its way, Superman would be the *only* big, strong comic book character with a cape.

    The company exploited a legal system slanted in their favor, along with creators’ prior inability to self-publish. While I don’t blame them for wanting to keep this cash cow character in their IP portfolio, they’ve been rather shameless in their treatment of Seigel and Schuster. Even after copyright laws changed to favor S&S back in 1976, they essentially waited until the guys died-off— with the hope that they’d not have to deal with them again (a long-standing corporate legal strategy). The real outcome of this decades-long legal battle (which “supposedly” ended in 1999) will likely be more future involvement by estates. Kudos to the families for sticking this one out.

    One last thing; while there are valid critiques of current copyright law, people should know that without expiration dates (a variable in the Superman case), Golden Age “orphan work” characters would be untouchable. This means no Project Superpowers (among a variety of yet to be developed comic character projects) could *ever* exist.

  23. Warner/DC has stated they had special news for an up and coming CON release. I wonder if perhaps their has been some back room wrangling that has solved allot of the current problems. It would be something nice for a change if all the turmoil over rights, pay, and say were laid to rest…

  24. it’s all the stupid lawyers’ fault!!! it’s always the stupid lawyers that make everything so complicated!!!

  25. I’m slightly less worried than I was!

  26. Ohhhh this news scares me…I’m scared now trolls. Ohhhhhh

  27. I have a plan. Give everything back to the S&S heirs, they are probably lame people who will squander their fortunes, and in no time at all D.C. can buy all the rights back to Superman. Dirt cheap. It will help if Hollywood, all publishers, and all of us fans boycott anything S&S attempt to publish. Lets do this.