The litigation over the ownership of the Superman character finally ended, on April 18th, with District Court Judge Otis D. Wright’s decision. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman 75 years ago and litigation over the character has been going on for almost as long.
Siegel and Shuster sold the character to the company that would become DC Comics for $130. For several years after that, they tried to get DC interested in stories about Superman when he was younger, Superboy. DC began publishing stories about Superboy in 1943 and Siegel and Shuster sued over his use. That case was settled in 1948 for $94,000.
The copyright to Superman was renewed periodically, but the Copyright Act of 1976 allowed a termination clause that would take effect in 1999. The Siegel estate gave a termination notice in 1997 which led to a 2001 comprehensive agreement that would settle ownership once and for all. The agreement was very lucrative for the Siegel estate: a $2 million advance, $1 million non-recoupable signing bonus, forgiveness of a previous advance, a guarantee of $500,000 per year for 10 years, 6% royalty on gross revenues, other royalties, and medical and dental insurance. The Shuster estate had already relinquished all claims to Superman in 1992 in exchange for $600,000 and a pension for Joe Shuster’s sister, Jean Peavy.
In 2007, the Siegel estate filed suit, arguing that Superboy and many other pieces of Superman-related intellectual property were not included in the termination letter of 1997 and thus not subject to the 2001 agreement. Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit found that the 2001 agreement was valid and remanded to the district court to determine final issues. Wright found in favor of DC’s claims that the Siegel estate intended to include all the Superman-related rights in the agreement, not just Superman, and that was why the agreement was so lucrative.
However, the Siegel estate may still bring a breach of contract claim in state court to determine if damages are due because DC may have breached the 2001 agreement.