Siegel Estate Prevails in Superman Copyright Case
LOS ANGELES — Time Warner is no longer the sole proprietor of Superman.
A federal judge here on Wednesday ruled that the heirs of Jerome Siegel — who 70 years ago sold the rights to the action hero he created with Joseph Shuster to Detective Comics for $130 — were entitled to claim a share of the United States copyright to the character. The ruling left intact Time Warner’s international rights to the character, which it has long owned through its DC Comics unit.
And it reserved for trial questions over how much the company may owe the Siegel heirs for use of the character since 1999, when their ownership is deemed to have been restored. Also to be resolved is whether the heirs are entitled to payments directly from Time Warner’s film unit, Warner Brothers, which took in $200 million at the domestic box office with “Superman Returns” in 2006, or only from the DC unit’s Superman profits.
Still, the ruling threatened to complicate Warner’s plans to make more films featuring Superman, including another sequel and a planned movie based on the DC Comics’ “Justice League of America,” in which he joins Batman, Wonder Woman and other superheroes to battle evildoers.
If the ruling survives a Time Warner legal challenge, it may also open the door to a similar reversion of rights to the estate of Mr. Shuster in 2013. That would give heirs of the two creators control over use of their lucrative character until at least 2033 — and perhaps longer, if Congress once again extends copyright terms — according to Marc Toberoff, a lawyer who represents the Siegels and the Shuster estate.
“It would be very powerful,” said Mr. Toberoff, speaking by telephone on Friday. “After 2013, Time Warner couldn’t exploit any new Superman-derived works without a license from the Siegels and Shusters.”
That is, until 2033 when Superman enters the public domain.