On November 22, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the estate of Joe Shuster has no claim to the copyright in the famed Superman comic book character, granting full rights to DC Comics and its parent company Warner Brothers. Joe Shuster, along with his partner Jerry Siegel, created Superman in the early 1930s but sold their rights to the character in 1938 to Action Comics for a mere $130. In 1947, the pair sued Action Comics in an effort to re-establish ownership of the intellectual property rights to Superman, claiming that the 1938 contract should be made void. The court, however, disagreed and upheld the contract. In 1973, Siegel and Shuster filed another lawsuit against the company (since renamed DC Comics) based on the Copyright Act of 1909. This Act granted copyrights for 28 years, with allowance for an additional renewal for another period of 28 years. Siegel and Shuster claimed that they had granted DC comics the copyright for only 28 years, without an allowance for renewal. Again the court disagreed and ruled in favor of DC Comics.
A few years later, the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect. A key clause of the Act provided a window for former copyright holders to reassert their copyright interest in works they assigned prior to 1976. Though the Act extended the copyright term from 56 years to 50 years beyond the death of the author, the Act stipulated that the original authors or their heirs could reclaim any assigned works once the copyright reached its 56th year, as long as the rights were reasserted within 5 years of that date. For the Superman character, this meant the window for reassertion would open in 1995. However, Joseph Shuster passed away in 1992. That same year, DC Comics entered into an agreement with Shuster’s estate in which the estate would release any and all claims in the Superman copyright and re-grant all of Joe Shuster’s copyright claims to DC in exchange for a lifetime pension of $25,000 a year. Jerry Siegel was not a member to that agreement.
In 1996, Jerry Siegel passed away. His estate subsequently filed a copyright termination notice in 1997, with an effective date of 1999. On October 16, 2001, DC offered the Siegel family a $1 million signing bonus and 6% royalties of DC’s gross profits from the use of the Superman copyright, as well as medical and dental benefits to the Siegel family. However, DC then offered another agreement, which the Siegel’s promptly refused. The Siegel estate and DC have since been embroiled in litigation as to which, if any, settlement was binding. In 2008, the U.S. District Court issued a summary judgment in favor of the Siegel family, awarding them the copyright to Superman. But, DC quickly appealed and obtained a reversal of this decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the October 16, 2001 agreement to be binding. As a result, DC Comics has been assigned Siegel’s 50% interest in the Superman character and Siegel’s estate was awarded its monetary claims under the October 16, 2001 agreement.
In 2003, Shuster’s estate filed a copyright termination notice against DC Comics seeking to reclaim the copyrights to Superman that Shuster had assigned to DC Comics in 1938. The claim was based on a clause of the Copyright Act, which permitted the filing of copyright termination notices to terminate assignments executed before January 1, 1978. DC responded in court that the 1992 agreement between itself and Shuster’s estate rendered the termination notice invalid because it superseded the 1938 agreement. In essence, DC claimed the 1992 agreement created a new assignment and left no pre-1978 assignment to terminate. A California District Court agreed with DC and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s ruling.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion on Shuster’s claims can be found here.
The settlement agreements between DC Comics and both the Shuster estate and the Siegel estate can be found here.
(Blog entry written by Alex Diamond, IBLT/Carter DeLuca Entrepreneurship Support Fellow for the Fall 2013 semester)