The heirs to Joe Shuster’s estate were delivered a legal blow to their desires to regain copyright control of Superman.
Shuster, along with Jerry Siegel, created Superman almost 75 years ago. After Shuster’s death in 1992, Shuster’s estate asked Warner Bros and DC comics for assistance to cover Shuster’s debts and pay Shuster’s sister, Jean Peavy, $25,000 a year for the rest of her life. Under this agreement, Warner Bros stated that this would resolve any past, present, and future claims to the Superman copyright from Shuster’s estate. Peavy stated that she would not pursue any claims, but the current legal heir to the Shuster estate, Mark Peavy, filed notice to reclaim Shuster’s half of the copyright.
Warner Bros argued in court that that new agreement made after Shuster’s death would turn the rights to Superman over to them and Shuster’s estate could have no future claims to the character. The judge in the Shuster case sided with Warner Bros’ argument.
The decision legally made Warner Bros a 50% owner of Superman since the Siegel estate has successfully won their rights to the other 50%. There are continuing legal cases between Warner Bros and Siegel’s estate regarding their claim. Laura Siegel Larson declared in a recent open letter that she would continue to fight for her father’s wishes that Siegel’s full rights are restored to his family. The case will continue with a new hearing on November 5th.
In the bigger outlook for the Superman character and what this means for all parties involved is that Warner Bros. are moving forward with a Justice League movie. All other characters that would be used in the Justice League film have not been caught up in any legal battles since the characters were all created under a “work-for-hire” agreement or currently have agreements with Warner Bros. The Superman case has been ongoing due to Siegel and Shuster creating the Superman character before coming to DC and thus they were the original creators and were not a part of a “work-for-hire” contract.
It is interesting to note that development on a solo Superman movie would not be caught up in this legal battle. With the Siegel estate, Warner has a profit-sharing agreement for the Man of Steel movie, which requires Warners to start production by 2011 for the new movie and Warner Bros complied. If the judge’s decision were to have sided with the Shuster estate, then the estate would also be entitled to negotiate a profit-sharing agreement.