Superman may stand for truth, justice and the American way, but in recent years he’s been concentrating on justice. The question of who owns Superman—and the right to make money off the character—has been the subject of ongoing court battles for years, but the latest move in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 10 gave Warner Bros. (which owns DC comics) a super-sized leg up. The decision comes mere months before the June 14, 2013, opening of the latest Superman movie, Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel.
You can read the full ruling over at Deadline, but here’s a quick run-down of the situation. Superman was created by Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster in the 1930s and, according to The Hollywood Reporter, they sold the rights to the character for far less than he was worth early on. Then, in 1976, the new Copyright Act included provisions to give copyrights back to artists who had sold them in the course of unfair bargaining. Using that law, the creators’ estates won a 2008 case that gave them the right to Superman’s backstory, as described in his first comic book appearance, as well as other elements of the character. Based on that decision, Warner Bros. would have to share the profits from franchise products like Man of Steel. However, in 2001, before the estates’ current lawyer, Marc Toberoff, stepped in, Warner Bros. had negotiated a deal with Jerome Siegel’s widow that would constitute fair compensation with fair bargaining for the rights her late husband had sold.
On appeal, the court has now decided that the 2001 deal had not been properly considered in the 2008 Copyright Act lawsuit. Based on a letter between Siegel’s widow’s lawyer and DC, which went over the terms of the agreement, the court found that both sides had already accepted the deal. A separate but similar 2012 lawsuit also found that Joseph Shuster, Siegel’s co-creator, could not recapture his rights, due to a 1992 agreement along the lines of the 2001 Siegel-WB deal. (A 2010 lawsuit on the part of Warner Bros. said that Toberoff—who denied that the 2001 agreement was legally binding—had personally and tortiously soured the relationship between the estates and the studio. That lawsuit, which had been held up, was also given the go-ahead yesterday.)
So, in short, Warner Bros. owns Superman and they can do whatever they want with him. He’ll continue to leap tall buildings into the future, and they’ll continue to make money from him. For now, at least: the New York Times reports that Siegel’s heirs could still take the case to the Supreme Court.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly implied that the 2010 lawsuit on the part of Warner Bros. against Toberoff was a criminal suit; it is a civil suit.