Warner Bros and the Superman rights battle

News Simon Brew 18 Oct 2012 - 07:16

There have been two developments in the battle for the rights to Superman this week. And here they are...

The ongoing battle over the rights to Superman between Warner Bros and the Siegel and Shuster families will be familiar to many of you. The basics are that Superman was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel back in 1938. Since then, while Superman has gone on to be a billion dollar business, Shuster and Siegel, as a result of agreements they’ve had in place many decades ago, have seen barely a scratch of that. They fought, and their heirs have fought, for what they believe to be their rightful share of the Superman copyright.

We will go into this in more depth in the near future, appreciating we’ve glossed over a very complex story.

A more recent pivotal event happened in 2009 when the original half of the Superman rights eventually reverted back to Jerry Siegel’s family. This allowed the family a share of Superman profits, and at one stage looked to threaten Warner Bros pursuing its new movie, Man Of Steel, which is now set for release next summer.

However, this week, there’s been a further turn or two.

Firstly, Laura Siegel Larson, Jerry Siegel’s daughter, issued an open letter to the fans of Superman, explaining her position, and her thoughts on Warner Bros’ tactics. It was pretty damning, too. You can find it in full at the bottom of the post.

The letter presumably was published with an inclination as to what was to come though, as we now learn that Warner Bros has won an appeal against the ruling that gives the co-creators of Superman part ownership of the rights. The gist is that because DC Comics agreed a deal that gave Shuster and Siegel annual pension payments of $20,000 some time ago, that this means they no longer have a financial right to part of the Superman character. Again, this is a simplifcation of the story, that we will be exploring in more detail. It’s a pretty ugly situation.

The immediate impact of the new ruling is that Warner Bros and DC gets the full rights to Superman, and that it’s full steam ahead for the company. Where the families of Siegel and Shuster go from here is less clear, but as Laura Siegel Larson says in her letter, “What Warner Bros apparently doesn’t realize is that despite their tremendous power, I will NEVER give up on my parents’ dream of rightfully restoring my father’s rights to his family”.

Here’s that letter in full, and we’ll have more on the story as we get it…

"Dear Superman Fans Everywhere,

My father, Jerry Siegel, co-created Superman as the “champion of the oppressed … sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” But sadly his dying wish, for his family to regain his rightful share of Superman, has become a cautionary tale for writers and artists everywhere.

My family’s David and Goliath struggle against Warner Bros, the media conglomerate, goes back to April 1997, when my mom and I exercised our clear right under the Copyright Act to achieve my dad’s dream of recovering his copyrights. In April 1999, my dad’s half of the original Superman rights reverted to us, entitling our family to a significant share of Superman profits, which Warner/DC Comics refused to pay. For over thirteen years they have fought us at every turn, in and out of court, aiming to make recovery of the money they owe us so impossibly difficult that we would give up and settle for peanuts.

We refused to be intimidated despite my elderly mom’s heart condition and my multiple sclerosis. In 2008 the U.S. District Court ruled that my mom and I had successfully recaptured my father’s Superman copyrights and were entitled to Superman profits since April 1999.

Angered and alarmed by this defeat, Warner Bros resorted to a despicable old trick: diverting attention from the legal merits of our case by personally attacking our long-time lawyer, Marc Toberoff. Through DC, the media giant filed a lawsuit against Mr. Toberoff, my family and the Estate of Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster, falsely claiming “unfair competition” and that Toberoff interfered with an out of court offer that Warner tried to push on my mom and me in early 2002 – an offer full of studio accounting traps that we refused to sign before we even knew Mr. Toberoff.

Warner Bros possesses documents stolen from my attorney’s office which mysteriously ended up on the desks of three top Warner executives. Warner claims it has no evidence whatsoever as to when these large packages arrived. According to Warner, the thief also included a cowardly anonymous letter that vilifies our attorney and mischaracterizes the privileged attorney-client communications enclosed. In a disgraceful violation of my privacy, Warner’s lawyers attached this nasty anonymous letter to a publicly filed complaint and leaked it to the media.

In the midst of this sideshow, my mom, the original model for Lois Lane, passed away last year at 93, still determined to keep her promise to my dad. She never got to relax and enjoy any proceeds from the crusade she fought until her dying day.

Now the torch is in my hands and I won’t be silent any longer about Warner Bros’ tactics. I refuse to be bullied or deterred from enforcing my farnily’s rights, and fully support my attorney who has tirelessly defended them. Warner Bros’ smear campaign has only made me more determined than ever. We have the right to the attorney of our choice, which is none of Warner’s business…

What Warner Bros apparently doesn’t realize is that despite their tremendous power, I will NEVER give up on my parents’ dream of rightfully restoring my father’s rights to his family.

Would Superman, the embodiment of “truth, justice and the American way,” let Warner Bros, DC Comics, and their gang of attorneys get away with this? Not for an instant!

Laura Siegel Larson

Los Angeles, California"

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I really wish they'd come to an agreement. This has been going on for far too long.

So huge corporations are scum. Who knew.

A simple out of court settlement surely ought to put an end to this? A one off six figure sum would do it, surely? Come on Warner, do the decent thing for once.

We don't know all the facts either originally or of late and there will inevitably be another side to the version of events in the letter, but my gut instinct is the same- one off payment to resolve. After all if a lowish deal was done for the rights years ago, there's a strong ethical argument to a more generous payment.

Everybody knows how shady movie companies are (see Hollywood accounting), but this isn't like the case with Peter Jackson and how one of the most successful movies ever (LOTR) "lost" money. This is money (or "rightful share" as she puts it) grab by a person who had nothing to do with the original product. Why she doesn't create something new herself?! The idea of the copyright
was creating income so that people would be motivated creating new art. The idea of the copyright wasn't author himself, his children, his
grandchildren etc. living off that said creation.

WB needs to be humbled old country way.

Not sure you've got your understanding of international copyright law quite right there Mart. The correct definition of copyright is “the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.” Now if Siegal, as creator, never made Warner their assignee then it certainly looks as though WB are in the wrong. The estate of Terry Nation is still the copyright holder of the Daleks 15 years after his death - why should this be any different.

I'm really not entirely sure how to feel about this.
On one hand, Warner Bros and DC's behaviour is quite appaling, and the fact that Siegel and Shuster got screwed over is unquestionable.
On the other, Siegel and Shuster's kids have nothing to do with the creation of Superman. Nothing. So why should they get anything at all?

I know nothing about the case, but from what I read in the article if her father sold the rights at the start for a $20k pension, then they have no right to more money - they cant change their mind just because the IP became successful. It could have gone the other way and failed, in which case the $20k pension was a good deal. Amazes me how people think they can go back on their word just because they made a poor decision and as a result lost out on money, so they think they are entitled to break the previous agreement for financial gain.

There is no doubt that companies like Warner Bros will resort to any means necessary to protect their interests, including immoral and alleged-illegal practices but similarly there is no doubt that despite the Siegel families protestation to the contrary, this is purely about money, not the "dream of rightfully restoring my father’s rights to his family".

The easiest thing Warner could do would be to give the family a couple of million dollars settlement to purchase the full rights (they can afford it) then I think everyone would be happy and this would all go away.

I know nothing of the case, but it seems to be a simple case of a choice between an upfront fee, or percentage of the profits, and unlike Keanu Reeves with The Matrix they made the wrong choice. Just because it became successful doesn't mean they have a legal right to break their agreement (although arguably they have a moral right). But like you said, there may be lots of things we don't know about the deal so cant really say for sure!

Maybe I wasn't clear enough. I'm no lawyer of course, but my thought is
more like this: copyright should last max 5-10 years. After that period the
work should enter public domain.
Superman character was created
almost 75 years ago and the author himself has been dead a long time. I
see no real reason why it should be still copyright protected and
someone should still make money off selling that right (it doesn't matter if the seller is the "little guy" or the "evil corporation").

Ohh and if you want to read about real copyright wtf, then google Sherlock
Holmes copyright. In UK it's public domain, in US it'll be
copyright protected through 2023...

"In April 1999, my dad’s half of the original Superman rights reverted to us", thnk that must have been part of the contract so the rights were only held by DC for a set period before reverting back to the creators. That would be my understanding anyway.

Given Warner Bros screwed up the Blu-Ray release by recoloring Superman's outfit to a (tacky and trendy teal/orange affair that was oh-so-2006 and 2006 wants its style returned, too), why I'm caring about this rights issue...

Content creators really need to start thinking forward and defending themselves instead of cheapening their product, dragging down everyone else's in the process.

Easy solution: capitalize on existing property... make "reality shows"... avoid taking risks, since those who do the work to make tomorrow's treasures will want to see their own sweat and labor rewarded and that's apparently a bad thing.

That depends. What did their pertinent parent(s) say in the will?

Or if things go down a generation, including bad things (like loans? I'll have to read up on that concept), then so should good things...

Who said our society was based on morals or ethics, or why successful people are attacked all the time by all of those degenerate liberals?

I agree with Snichy. Tough titties.

This kind of thing gets on my nerves. Imagine if the families of car designers or artists (who were paid a wage to produce work for an employer ) started to put in claims after they realized that what they did was a financial success. Think they would keep quiet if they had created a Superhero etc.. if the studios made into a loss making film. Share the winnings but not the losses.

The studios deserve the profits as they take the risk with the film and finance the production, employ staff and invest in marketing. It's just greed in my view.

Sielgel and Shuster sold 'all rights' of their Superman work for $130 to DC. That ended their involvement of any payments based on copyright or royalty right there. It's after Superman took off and they didn't receive any further compensation for it that they decided they should and tried to sue. Warner Brothers (Owners of DC at this point) paid the pair a pension due to the fact they didn't want any bad press when there was a Superman movie coming out soon. This was the late 1970's.

That a situation like this could even be up for debate is ludicrous, as is the fact that the courts awarded half of the creation rights to Siegel's family, though Warner is still not paying them anything, nor should they.

Having just found this, "A couple of million dollars?" Superman as a property must have come seriously close to the trillion dollar mark by now. Forget 2 (or three or four if you're not from the South; I've noticed everyone who says 'a couple' down here genuinely means 'two'), they should at least offer fifty mil a piece.

You took the words right out of my mouth. this is pure greed
& in no way has anything to do with restoring family rights.

Arguing about how you "think" copyright law "ought" to work is pointless. The big media companies successfully lobbied to get Congress to change our copyright laws so as to allow copyright to be essentially extended indefinitely.

This family simply made use of the exact same legal system Warner Brothers uses, and they won. That's how it works. Don't like it? GTFO this country or STFU.

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