superman_200A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of Warner Bros. over rights to the Superman character.  This paves the way for the studio to continue making Superman movies after Man of Steel opens this summer.

The estates of Superman co-creators Siegel and Shuster have spent years attempting to exploit the “termination” provision of the 1976 Copyright Act, meant to give artists who handed their rights over without much bargaining power at the early stages of their careers another bite of the apple by allowing them to recapture rights. Superman was first created in comic form in the 1930s when the artists were struggling financially. The story of how they handed over their rights for little compensation is well known, and they’ve been in and out of court trying to fix it for more than 70 years.

In a ruling issued last Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a 2008 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Larson that had denied Warner Bros.’ contention that it had a deal in October 2001 with Laura Siegel Larson, one of the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerome Siegel. The 2008 ruling had found that the Siegel heirs were entitled to exploit the copyrights to several aspects of Superman such as his origin story and costume.

However, the appeals court ruled that Judge Larson (not related to Laura Siegel Larson) hadn’t addressed whether a 2001 letter from her attorney constituted a negotiated acceptance of terms between the parties.

“We hold, as a matter of law, that the Oct. 19, 2001, letter did constitute such an acceptance,” the appeals court said in its ruling. “The October 19, 2001 letter itself plainly states that the heirs have ‘accepted D.C. Comics offer of October 16, 2001 in respect of the ‘Superman’ and ‘Spectre’ properties.”  Note here that this is a letter, not a contract – so the overturn is based on something that isn’t actually a legal document, but which, for some reason, the court of appeals considered to be legally binding anyway.

Last October, federal judge Otis Wright ruled to deny the heirs of Superman’s other co-creator, Joseph Shuster, from reclaiming rights to the Man of Steel, asserting that a 1992 pact prevents the family from exercising an aspect of copyright law that allows authors to recapture their works.  This means Warner Bros. and its subsidiary, DC Comics, are pretty much off the hook with respect to seeking permission from the estates of the co-creators for making any new Superman projects.  This includes the Justice League movie that seems to be stumbling to its feet.

The release date for Warner Bros. has slipped a bit – Man of Steel was originally slated to release in May of this year, but it’s now scheduled for release on June 14, 2013.  Zack Snyder is the director for Legendary Pictures , with Brit thesp Henry Cavill playing Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane.

That wasn’t the end of the victories for Warner Bros.  The appeals court also gave them a victory over  attorney Michael Toberoff, whom DC Comics, represented by Dan Petrocelli, says inserted himself into the DC/Warner contractual relationships with Siegel’s and Shuster’s heirs to coax them out of settling with the studio and instead enter into an agreement with his own production ventures to exploit the Superman franchise. Toberoff, naturally, complains that the suit is frivolous and was little more than a bargaining leverage against the heirs to get them to sell the rights back at a reduced price.

Read the full decision here.

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