A new U.S. District Judge ruling is keeping Superman with Warner Bros. and DC Comics, and for now, prevents the Joseph Shuster heirs from reclaiming any rights to the iconic comic book character.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright has stated that a 1992 agreement signed between Joe Shuster’s sister, Jean Peavy and her brother Frank supersedes the current lawsuit.  In the 1992 agreement, DC Comics agreed to cover all of Joseph Shuster’s debts and to pay Jean Peavy $25,000 for the rest of her life. In exchange for signing the agreement, the heirs would fully resolve any past, present, or future claims against DC.  This is a big win for Warner Bros. who now don’t need permission from the heirs to continue to produce Superman comics.  And in a way, it is still a win for Peavy who continues to receive $25,000 a year for the rest of her life.  In the case of the Siegel heirs, they did win a victory in 2009 to reclaim early Superman works, and they continue to receive a significant amount of money from returns on the property.

Of course this means Marc Toberoff, who is representing the Shuster side of the argument will appeal the case to a higher authority.

What really strikes me as a real problem with the current Copyright Act is that it allows anyone related to a creator to reclaim copyrights to works released prior to 1992. Previously, the rights could only be handed down to the spouse, child, and grandchild. Further, and this is the part has bothered me about this case since the beginning, is that after the Siegel case concluded in 1992, Jean Peavy stated that she was committed to honoring the 1992 agreement she signed with DC Comics, then headed by Paul Levitz.  That is also something that stood out to Judge Wright as he commented on that statement in his decision.

This is far from over, Spoilerites!

via Variety


About Author

Stephen Schleicher began his career writing for the Digital Media Online community of sites, including Digital Producer and Creative Mac covering all aspects of the digital content creation industry. He then moved on to consumer technology, and began the Coolness Roundup podcast. A writing fool, Stephen has freelanced for Sci-Fi Channel's Technology Blog, and Gizmodo. Still longing for the good ol' days, Stephen launched Major Spoilers in July 2006, because he is a glutton for punishment. You can follow him on Twitter @MajorSpoilers and tell him your darkest secrets...


  1. The Biography, “Superman The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” by Larry Tye out lines everything about Superman’s creation, money that changed hands, and the whole lawsuit B.S. It is a great tell all book that was written with unpublished diaries of Jerry Siegel. I highly recommend it. You might not feel the same about the” poor and mistreated” Siegels and Shusters after reading it. It also comes in audio book.

    • Aside from the straight monetary compensation received by Siegel and Shuster, one of the things that bothered me more in that book was how Jerry essentially abandoned his first son and wife (Michael and Bella) such that they received none of his attention, stardom, or funds.

      Ironically, when the termination right was first enacted, the law was drafted such that your issue would take a stake irrespective of a testator’s will… meaning, despite cutting Michael out of his life while living- even if Jerry had tried to write Michael out of his will- Michael was entitled to a 25% share of Jerry’s stake in Superman (25% to his half-sister Laura and 50% to Joanne).

      By all reports, however, Michael grew up better for it… having a lot of integrity, family, community, etc. despite his father issues (see the “Last Son” documentary about the Siegels). Heck, when Toberoff came a’knocking to get Mike into the lawsuit, Mike saw him for what he was and shoo’ed him away, and sent letters to Laura to warn her of how shady Toberoff was (letters made accessible to the court along with the infamous “timeline” filings when one of Toberoff’s associates provided the WB with documents which more or less conclusively proved Toberoff was after the rights to Superman himself… typically, theft of such documents would void admission, but the court ruled that Toberoff waived privilege when he provided copies to the police to track down the stolen documents- he could have simply described the documents without breaking privilege rather than revealing their contents to the police).

      Seems Michael was right as this recent ruling includes a colloquy by the judge describing how Toberoff induced Mark Peavy (Jean’s son) into an illegal contract- that he knew void against public policy- to sell Superman’s rights to Toberoff. The judge did not actually have to go into that analysis since it was rendered moot by his view of the ’92 agreement, but the ethical ramifications made him go out of his way to address the behavior.

      I tend to agree with Jeff Trexler, that this ruling gives the Siegels ground to get rid of Toberoff and come back to the settlement table, but I’m guessing Toberoff’s claws are sunk in too deep for them know there’s a problem short of the court sanctioning Toberoff and pulling him off pursuant to the WB’s other lawsuit against him. I believe this because the Siegels seem to conveniently write open letters to the public right before any of Toberoff’s critical hearings. It would be nice to believe they wrote and sent the letters themselves as a genuine way to air grievances, but as representing parties in a lawsuit the timing and content make them a little more suspect, and most likely Toberoff incited stunts.

      When this is all over, I want the movie rights to the Toberoff / Superman story!

  2. Being a music scholar, I personally despise what has gone on with copyright laws over the course of the 20th century. It seems to have increasingly stifled innovation in my opinion. In western music, there are only twelve tones. The ability to write something without stepping on someones legal toes is becoming increasingly difficult. Furthermore there are some styles of music that can be innovative, but the musical appeal is lost on the vast majority.
    Like DC, many publishers have the rights to print the music rather than composers (now long dead). Some companies have even sued and lost to a particular website that posts downloadable scores of public domain music. One actually tried to claim Beethovan (Dead since 1827 and never heard of copyright) as one of their copyrights based upon their publication of an early 20th century score.
    I am personally really looking forward to many 20th century scores becoming open to the public. In the past, composers borrowed from each other quite extensively. It was often looked at as a form of flattery. Taking a line or motive (Musical thought) from an obscure instrument line was seen as Inconsequential in that day but can erupt into a legal battle today.
    These laws need revisions for the public good not the publishers.

    • As a former IP lawyer, there’s a lot of misconceptions in the above post.

      0. Yes, whether IP even needs to be protected at all is a value judgment… Confucian era Chinese scholars relied heavily on memorization, remixes, and copying of other works without citation in a manner considered plagiarism in Western culture… however, just because an alternative exists doesn’t make it better (or worse). IP-driven popular culture has had far more impact on global culture than “cultural commons” type media which tend to be so diffuse and amorphous as to never truly act as any kind of touchstone to bring humanity together. The closest approximation is internet culture / memes and even those have heavy curation / taste-making mechanisms that resemble IP structures more than they resemble commons.

      Moreover, the example of classical scores pretends that it was a fantasy period of free and abounding music, but forgets about fierce competitive patronages and just how little music was produced in comparison today. The greatness of such music didn’t arise from remix, it arose because there was so little to be great as dictated by patrons… and they endured, as classics, because of corporate-like sponsorship that made their names historical and artistic touchstones.

      1. By comparison, today, consumers have nearly limitless choice and access to media. You don’t have to listen to the half-dozen great men of Vienna. You can elect to listen to a garage band from Littleton, AK or a Korean rapper you wouldn’t have given 10 seconds to only five years ago. There is a ton of innovation, access, remix, and yes, profit, to go around. Copyright might have *some* chilling effect, but offering less protection is hardly a solution. If you’re wholesale stealing, why should your use be free?

      Modern copyright law has evolved far beyond its original conception and recognizes huge carve-outs for fair use and parody, etc. which allow for tributes, sampling, and transformative use. And those are for commercial ventures- forego money and you can satisfy your artistic and creative desires to your heart’s content.

      In all honesty, Google’s automated YouTube measures probably have more to do with copyright “enforcement” than the law itself… if you actually took the claims to court, nearly any legitimate transformative use would prevail.

      2. Ranting against copyright on the basis of bad and unsuccessful claims is ridiculous (anyone can sue anyone, that doesn’t indicate a bad law, just a frivolous lawsuit that one will not prevail on). That’s like pointing to Liefeld as the benchmark for comic creator norms and why all comics should be abolished.

      3. Anti-Corporate ranting is even more ridiculous. So creators should have all the power (to remix as they like or to protect their works), but not publishers because they’re corporations… so what about creators that want to incorporate or sell to corporations? Suddenly they shouldn’t be afforded protections or legal rights? If this is all about artistic integrity and anti-commercialism then who cares about copyright? Just forego profit and wholesale theft and you’re free to remix to your hearts desire.

      Let’s not forget that modern copyright law allows you to create various licensing agreements or, as a creator, give away your music if you so desire. The laws are meant to protect creators who aren’t electing to give their stuff away for free. You’re saying just because the public wants it free they should be forced to do so by law? That nuts.

      I’m not saying copyright doesn’t need reform and that there isn’t a disconnect between public behaviors/norms versus legal standards, but making the line one between corps and the public while ignoring the role of creators is absurd.

      It doesn’t matter if a publisher is suing you or Jerry Siegel himself, to stop you from stealing Superman, the copyright protects them both because of their status as creator not as a corporation.

      4. Bottom line… what do you think you’re being deprived of? You can cover, remix, sample, create any song you like and put it on YouTube as long as you don’t directly profit of the song (and even then, there are plenty of ways to do so). You can make fanfiction, documentaries, porn, or parodies of your favorite characters. You can make a commercial alternative version. You can quote “Yippie Kai Yay!”, “I’ll be back!”, etc. in Expendables while remixing all sorts of cultural expectations and references.

      The main point of long copyright is to protect those curators who can maintain a certain level of integrity to an IP (so long as a profit motive exists to do it) which enables global popular culture to have access to something consistent and meaningful to remix, transform, and distribute in the commons. It’s why you’ll find far more cultural content on Superman than something uncurated which has fallen into ambiguity. I don’t imagine there’s a ton of “Lost World” fanfiction out there to be consumed by comparison to Potter or Batman.

      Even “successful” public domain characters (say a more successful Doyle creation like Sherlock) tend to see only occasional commercial exploitation (again, how much Sherlock songs, fanfics, t-shirts, etc. compared to IP that is actively owned and curated like Dr. Who or Star Wars)… and do not return value to culture the way owned IP does. All the while fair use still allows you to write your songs about Kryptonite, etc. and exploit the property owned by another. So I’d hardly say the protections of copyright are as overreaching as some try to present.

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