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End of the Road for Siegel and Shuster Heirs’ “Superman” Battle? A Cautionary Tale

First the Jerry Siegel heirs, in February; now the Joe Shuster heirs. The lawsuits over the rights of the heirs of Superman’s co-creators may be over. The Shuster heirs appear stuck with a 1992 agreement paying a “pension” of $25,000 per year. The Siegel heirs fared much better: their 2001 agreement included $3 million up front and an ongoing 6% of gross revenues.

Last Thursday, an appellate court effectively affirmed DC Comics’ ownership of the copyright for Superman in what may be the final chapter in a long, complex and ultimately losing struggle by the heirs of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to regain their rights to the iconic superhero.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an attempt by the Shuster estate to terminate its transfer of the Superman copyright to DC in 2003 was ineffective. The 2-1 decision hinged on a 1992 agreement in which Shuster’s siblings including his sister and sole heir, Jean Shuster Peavy, agreed to grant “any copyrights” in Superman to DC in exchange for a yearly $25,000 pension payment.

Although authors may terminate grants in their works after a certain number of years, they must do so in the correct time and manner. Siegel and Shuster signed their Superman contract in 1938. If that’s the relevant date, then sending a termination notice between than 2003 and the end of 2010 would do the trick. The Shuster estate argued that the 1992 letter agreement did not supersede the 1938 contract, so the 2003 termination notice was filed at the right time. DC argued that the 1992 agreement revoked Shuster and Siegel’s original 1938 contract, which sold the company all of the rights to Superman for $130, and granted the copyrights anew.

The appeals court majority last week agreed with DC, ruling that “the agreement created a new, 1992 assignment of works to DC—an assignment unaffected by the 2003 notice of termination.”

In February, the appeals court ruled against Siegel’s heirs, denying their bid to reclaim Superman copyrights. A lower court then held that a 2001 deal the Siegels struck with DC was an enforceable settlement.

While neither family succeeded in securing the Superman copyright, the Siegels’ 2001 deal was much more lucrative than the Shusters’ 1992 $25,000 pension agreement: the Siegel heirs secured a $2 million advance, a $1 million signing bonus, and 6% of gross.

On Friday, Jeff Texler, who has written extensively on the legal wrangling over Superman on the comics blog The Beat, reflected on the outcome.

Is it fair that the Shuster heirs only secured a meager pension while the Siegel heirs stand to gain tens of millions of dollars in exchange for the same rights? Arguably not, but from a legal perspective it’s a cautionary tale as old as the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, who sold his precious birthright for some lentil soup. Immediate benefits can be extremely costly in the longer term, especially if an attorney isn’t on hand to negotiate a better deal.