If reports are to be believed, DC Comics may soon find out whether or not it will have to relinquish part of its ownership of Superman to the estate of one of the character's co-creators.
Earlier this week, US District Judge Otis Wright cancelled a hearing that was set for next Monday on the matter of whether or not DC could expect a summary judgment over the validity of a claim of ownership made by Mark Warren Peary, the nephew of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, announcing that he would instead decide the issue without hearing oral argument. Should Judge Wright rule that Peary has no claim, that doesn't necessarily mean that DC gets to own Superman outright, however; with complexity to match even the most convoluted summer event crossover to date, the legal battle over who owns the Man of Steel turns out to be ridiculously complicated.
Let's start with the subject that Judge Wright will be deciding soon. DC Comics and parent company Time Warner has asked for a summary judgment - essentially, a ruling from a judge with no jury involvement - over whether or not Peary can reclaim part-ownership of the copyright to Superman in October 2013. Peary - acting as executor of the estate of Shuster - filed a notice of termination of copyright in 2003, something that would normally allow the creator or estate thereof to reclaim ownership of material after a set period of time as defined under existing copyright law in the United States. We say "normally," because according to lawyers working for DC, any attempt to terminate copyright on the part of the Shuster estate is automatically invalid because Peary's parents had waived any such claim as part of a 1992 agreement with the publisher.
That 1992 agreement came about following the death that year of Shuster himself. Following his death, Jean and Frank Peavy - the sister and brother-in-law of Shuster, respectively - found themselves saddled with the debt that Shuster had accumulated across the years. Suddenly responsible for an overwhelming amount of moneys owed to various parties - including more than $20,000 in credit card bills alone - on Shuster's behalf, Jean Peavy reached out to Time Warner to ask for financial assistance. "The kindness and generosity of Warner Communications and now Time Warner has been demonstrated in the past," Peavy wrote to Time Warner Vice President Marty Payson in a letter dated August 21, 1992. "Any help that Time Warner could give to the family of Joe Shuster to pay his final debts and expenses would be warmly appreciated at this time of mourning."
Time Warner not only paid off all of Shuster's debts, the company also informed the Peavys that they were legally entitled to an annual pension from the company under the terms of a 1975 agreement between DC and the Superman creators - as long as they waived any future claim to the rights of the Superman character. That agreement - which came about as a result of behind-the-scenes agitation by creators including Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams over the shoddy treatment of the men who had created DC's most important character - promised both creators a life-long annual pension of $25,000, medical benefits and bonuses. It also offered the same to both creators' heirs for a fixed time following their passing (which is where the Peavy's pensions came from). The Peavys happily signed, and maintained a generally-good relationship with DC and Time Warner from that point onwards, albeit one punctuated with occasional requests for an increase in the pension amount (Eventually granted, although "bonuses" were more commonly given instead of an official pension increase) accompanied by reassurances that there was no interest in reclaiming copyright in Superman.
Until 2003, that is.By that point, Mark Warren Peavy was officially in charge of the Shuster estate, and attorney Marc Toberoff had entered the picture. After almost a decade of denying any interest in the rights to Superman, the Peavys performed an about-face in 2001, signing a contract with Toberoff that apparently not only announced the intent to reclaim Joe Shuster's 50% share to the rights of certain parts of the Superman mythos (according to the contract, those parts are "Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luther [sic], Lana Lang, Mr. Mxyztplk, Superboy, Supergirl, The Daily Planet, Krypton, Kryptonite and Smallville") but went on to award Toberoff's company Pacific Pictures, with half of all "moneys and proceeds" from those rights. Yes, Toberoff would essentially receive a quarter of the Man of Steel for his efforts.
Additionally, Toberoff had earlier signed a very similar deal with Joanne Siegel, the widow of Superman's other creator Jerry, that gave him 40% of her share, too. Presuming both terminations of copyright went through, Marc Toberoff could potentially own the majority share in Superman, despite having no true claim to him in any way.
Back to the present day, however. What Judge Wright - remember him? - will have to decide in his ruling is whether or not Mark Warren Peavy has any legal right to file a termination of copyright in the first place, given that his parents had actually signed away that right in 1992. Time Warner and DC's lawyers are arguing that, no, obviously he doesn't, and Peavy and Toberoff are pushing the idea that he does - and they may, possibly, have the law on their side.
What complicates matters even more is that it seems that the 1992 agreement itself may not be legally valid, according to some interpretations. At the time it was signed, US law said that only the spouse, child or grandchild of a creator could hold claim to any copyright, and Jean was none of those… Meaning that she had signed away something that she couldn't actually have claimed anyway. The law was changed in 1998, allowing executors of estates the same level of ownership, and so Mark Warren Peavy, who officially became executor of the Shuster estate in 2003, may have the right to reclaim it now.Judge Wright faces a difficult decision. The 1992 agreement may be legally invalid, but Jean Peavy did express disinterest in termination of copyright in writing to DC Comics after 1998, when she was legally able to make a claim for it. Add to this the fact that Time Warner and DC is also facing a termination notice from the estate of Jerry Siegel and that there are ongoing legal battles over Toberoff's role in the situation that could essentially invalidate everything since the 1992 agreement, and this whole thing seems like a mess that even Kal-El would struggle to untangle or find a happy solution for.
Understandably, Judge Wright has, so far, not given any idea of when to expect a ruling. This isn't something that you'd want to rush.FACEBOOK and TWITTER!