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Few comic book characters or superheroes are as well-known or well-loved as Superman. At least nine different films, from as far back as 1948 and as recently as 2013, boast Superman as their main character — and that does not even include television. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Superman “brand” is a lucrative asset. Yet the question of who owns Superman has long been up for debate.
Superman was created in the 1930s by two high school students, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. However, due to hard economic times, in 1938 the co-creators sold their Superman rights to the company now known as DC Comics. Superman quickly gained popularity, appearing in comic books, radio shows, TV programs, newspapers, and more, and as DC Comics’ contract came to an end, Siegel and Shuster sued to regain their rights to Superman. Ultimately, a settlement was made.
Fast forwarding to the 21st century, the long debated issue of who owns Superman came back into question when attorney Marc Toberoff filed suit on behalf of the co-creators’ heirs seeking to terminate Warner Bros’ copyright grant. The case quickly made its way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which, in late 2013, held that the heirs of Siegel and Shuster have no claim to any copyright interest in Superman. Following an appeal, last week the 9th Circuit elected not to hold a rehearing, largely because the co-creators’ heirs had entered into agreements accepting payments and benefits in exchange for Superman rights.
Despite this seemingly definitive ruling from the 9th Circuit, Siegel’s heirs are not giving up hope. Although this ruling makes it impossible for Siegel’s heirs to challenge the enforceability of past agreements transferring rights to Warner Bros., they may be able to fight the ruling from a termination or a breach-of-contract action angle. So stay tuned – this fight may not be over yet.
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