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Bryan E. Kuhn
Counselor at Law, P.C.
Business & Employment Law Attorney

Copyrights to Superman character to stay with Warner Bros.

For some Colorado companies, intellectual property and copyrights are their superpower that allows them to succeed and grow and that holds true for Warner Bros. as well. Recently a judge ruled that the company will retain the copyrights to the Superman character originally created by Joe Shuster. Heirs to Joe Shuster’s estate attempted to reassert their rights to the Superman character despite a U.S. District Court judge’s 1992 ruling which granted those rights to DC Comics shortly after the artist’s death. The Superman character first appeared in 1938 and has remained a powerful image and even a brand some might say for almost 75 years.

When Joe Shuster died, DC Comics agreed to pay all of his debts as well as pay the artist’s heir $25,000 every year for the rest of her life. According to the written decision by the judge, this prior case represented the only opportunity the Shuster family would have to renegotiate the copyrights to the Superman name. When that agreement was made it superseded all prior copyright agreements. This ruling ultimately prevents Shuster’s heirs from any attempts to renegotiate the rights to the Superman character.

Superman was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel and the two granted the rights to Superman’s image to Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld of DC Comics for $130 in the 1930s. Superman first appeared in comic book form in 1938. In a 2008 case, a judge ruled that the Siegel family had rights to the Superman character but still allowed Warner Bros. use of the character as long as it paid the family. Warner Bros. is currently appealing that ruling.

The judge in the latest copyright case said that the Shuster family’s case is different from the Siegel family’s case because the Shuster family entered into the 1992 agreement. The Shuster family is expected to appeal the judge’s recent ruling as their copyright attorney said in a statement that the family ‘disagrees with the factual and legal conclusions’ of the judge’s order. Warner Bros. is planning to release a new Superman film titled “Man of Steel” next year.

Copyright agreements, like any contract, require both parties to enter into the agreement in good faith. One could argue by selling the copyrights to the hugely popular Superman character for only $130 in the 1930s and then again for only $25,000 per year in 1992 were perhaps not the most successful negotiations on behalf of the creators and their heirs. When an inventor or artist has a super idea, ensuring his or her legal rights are legally protected through copyright and trademark law can be one of the most powerful tools in his or her arsenal.

Source: The Christian Science Monitor, “Superman rights stay with Warner Bros.,” Molly Driscoll, Oct. 18, 2012

Our Denver-area law firm handles a range of business law issues, including intellectual property, copyright and trademark law and litigation.

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