In 2008, a California court ruled that rights to certain elements central to the character of Superman would revert from DC Comics to the family of the hero’s co-creator Jerry Siegel in 2013. The ruling is bogged down in legalese but the end result is that it was based on the grounds that Siegel, along with his partner Joe Shuster, had sold the rights of some of Superman’s early adventures to DC that were not under the “work for hire” umbrella. That means that they didn’t sell permanent rights to parts of Superman’s history. Since that ruling, Warner Brothers and DC Comics have been attempting to find a way to regain control of their flagship character.
Marc Toberoff, the copyright lawyer representing the families of both Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has been the biggest stumbling block in Warner Brother’s attempt at a resolution. Things got nastier in 2010 when Warner Brothers went on the offensive against Toberoff directly by filing a lawsuit claiming that his involvement in the case was for personal gain.
Warner Brothers’ lawsuit claims that they were on the verge of striking up a deal with the families of the creators in 2002 before Toberoff entered the scene. Their case further claims that Toberoff’s interest in the case was due to the fact that the Shusters had recently signed an agreement with Pacific Pictures Corporation, one of Toberoff’s own companies! The claim is that the Shuster/PPC deal was set up to exploit the family’s rights to the Superman character.
Toberoff fought back by claiming that Warner Brothers had no right to attack him personally due to California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law that protects against legal intimidation. However, yesterday, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright, knocked down Toberoff’s protest on the grounds that he was acting on behalf of his business, Pacific Pictures, and not as a lawyer when he joined the Superman lawsuit.
Wright further harmed Toberoff’s case by undoing an agreement that Pacific Pictures made with the Shusters in 1992 that gave the company rights that already belonged to DC Comics. Wright also gave Warner Brothers rights to a letter from Laura Siegel to her brother that claimed that Toberoff had interfered with the 2001 negotiations with Warner Brothers and coerced the families to sign agreements with his company.
The worry in the comic book community is what will become of Superman? Half of the rights to parts of the character that Siegel and Shuster created (including his origins, his ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound”, and his iconic costume) have already reverted to the Shuster family. The rest will go to Shusters family in 2013. DC Comics and Warner Brothers have until then to work something out with the families as, after that point, neither they or the families will be able to make further Superman works without express permission from the other.
If I were the Siegels and Shusters, I’d dump Toberoff and find myself a lawyer that wasn’t trying to exploit my rights.