Clark Kent and the Daily Planet would have been all over this story. A Los Angeles judge ruled that DC Comics will retail all rights to the news reporter’s super hero secret identity. The battle of wills took place between comic book giant DC Comics and the heirs of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster. They battled to the end, with the heirs wanting more compensation, and with DC Comics stating that the heirs signed away their rights about 20 years ago.
The decision in this case means that DC Comics will retain all the rights to the Superman characters and can continue to use them in books, movies and other entertainment media. It also means that Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics, will retain the rights for use in books, films, television and other various mediums. Given the enormous popularity of movies portraying Marvel superstars such as Iron Man, Thor and the X-Men, keeping the rights to Superman and not interrupting the new Superman movie, which is scheduled for release on June 14, 2013, is a big win for DC and Warner Bros.
The case that set up this battle started in 2010, when DC Comics sued Shuster’s heirs to seek an official ruling that the heirs had lost their rights to reclaim any copyrights to the infamous superhero back in 1992. In a ruling issued on October 17, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright II sided with DC Comics, stating that Shuster had relinquished rights in exchange for annual compensation in the form of pension payments.
Superman was created in 1938 by Shuster and Jerome Siegel. Both Shuster and Siegel have fought for more compensation over the years, and Siegel’s heirs have also taken on DC Comics for their part in the rights to the Superman fame.
According to the official complaint filed by DC Comics, in March of 1938, Shuster and Siegel assigned DC Comics the “exclusive right to the use of the [Superman] characters and story.” In April 1983, Action Comics #1 published a comic that was an adapted version of the Superman story. The creators continued on in accordance their contract with DC Comics, supplying DC Comics with their draft of the Superman comic, and were generously compensated with bonuses and royalties, which increased as the success of the comic increased.
In 1947, Shuster and Siegel sued DC Comics to invalidate their contract with DC from 1938. The court ruled that the 1938 contract did in fact grant all rights of the Superman comics to DC. In 1975, DC Comics gave Shuster and Siegel each a lump sum, and agreed to annual payments, survivor payments to any heirs, insurance and credits on any new Superman pictures. After this, both Shuster and Siegel acknowledged that DC Comics owned the Superman copyright in its entirety.
Shuster passed away in 1992, throwing a curve in the plot. His sister, Jean, wrote to DC Comics, identified herself as Shuster’s heir, and asked DC to help pay Shuster’s final debts. DC Comics offered to pay Shuster’s remaining debts and increase the payments that his brother Frank received.
Frank Shuster sent a letter to DC thanking the then-Executive V.P. for the increased payments and requested that the payments be made directly to his sister, Jean. Jean was to send Frank money he needed as a gift so that he would not get taxed on it.
Shuster’s heirs then argued that the original compensation agreements made between Shuster and Siegel, and DC Comics back in 1975 could be terminated due to the provisions that allow the creators of works that are made before 1978 the means to reclaim their rights. For more on this topic see Copyright Termination. However, DC Comics says that the 1992 agreement made by Jean and Frank Shuster voids the original contract and prohibits the Shusters from obtaining the rights according to the pre-1978 provision.
According to DC, the agreement between them and the Shusters state:
We [DC] ask you to confirm by your signatures below that this agreement fully settles all claims to any payments or other rights or remedies which you may have under any other agreement or otherwise, whether now or hereafter existing regarding any copyrights, trademarks, or other property right in any and all work created in whole or in part by your brother, Joseph Shuster, or any works based thereon. In any event, you now grant to us any such rights and release us, our licensees and all others acting with our permission, and covenant not to assert any claim of right, by suit or otherwise, with respect to the above, now and forever.
Honorable Judge Wright sided with DC and ruled that the decision made by Jean Shuster to accept higher payments from DC created a new agreement, and therefore the pre-1978 stipulation does not apply. According to the official court document:
The Court finds that the 1992 Agreement does in fact settle all prior agreements. As Black’s Law Dictionary confirms, “full settlement” is “a settlement and release of all pending claims between the parties.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1497 (9th ed. 2009). The 1992 Agreement extends such release to “all claims to any payments or other rights or remedies which [the Shusters] may have under any other agreement or otherwise, whether now or hereafter existing regarding any copyrights . . . .” Accordingly, the 1992 Agreement not only settled and released all “claims . . . rights [and] remedies” concerning the Shuster copyrights under all prior agreements, but it also extended the release to such rights and remedies as might exist “otherwise.”
There seems to be no mistaking that statement. The court plainly ruled that the 1992 agreement made by the Shusters to accept higher monthly payments rendered the original agreement from 1975 null and void.