Superman Dodges a Bullet: Supreme Court Denies Certiorari in Heirs’ Bid to Reclaim Character Copyright

Man of SteelClose on the heels of the settlement between Marvel Comics and Jack Kirby’s heirs, which ended their dispute over copyright in a number of iconic comic book characters, the heirs to one of Superman’s co-creators, artist Joseph Shuster, lost out on the chance of a Supreme Court hearing in their effort to wrest copyright in the Man of Steel away from DC Comics.  Like Kirby’s heirs, Shuster’s heirs had attempted to invoke 17 U.S.C. § 304(c) by sending notices to DC Comics in 2003, purporting to terminate the assignment of Shuster’s copyright in the Superman comics and the character they portray.

A divided Ninth Circuit panel held, however, that a 1992 agreement between the heirs and DC had replaced Shuster’s original copyright grant with an entirely new copyright assignment to DC – one that was not affected by the purported termination, because the termination right only applies to pre-1978 assignments.  The Shuster heirs argued that, since the termination right was not extended to an author’s estate (as it was to the surviving spouse and children) until 1998, the 1992 agreement should not be seen as a renegotiation of rights in light of rebalanced bargaining power, as intended by the statute.  But the Supreme Court denied certiorari on October 6, leaving the Ninth Circuit ruling in favor of DC in effect.

Meanwhile, the battle over Superman continues on other fronts.  As we have previously reported, the heirs of Superman’s other co-creator, writer Jerome Seigel, lost before the Ninth Circuit on similar claims in January 2013.  The Siegel heirs are currently pressing a claim for the rights to Superboy (Superman’s youthful incarnation), which they assert was not covered by a 2001 settlement in which they signed away their rights to Superman.  The heirs’ summary judgment loss in that case is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

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