In a legal victory that cements the studio's ownership of Superman as it goes forward with a slate of movie about the Man of Steel, Warner Bros. has won an appeal against the daughter of the character's co-creator, Jerry Siegel.
A trio of judges with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling that had allowed Laura Siegel Larson to terminate 50% of Warner Bros.' copyright. Terminating the copyright would have deprived Warner Bros. of much of the Superman mythos and likely would have led to new negotiations over royalties -- at a higher price for the studio.
Contrary to the finding of a U.S. District Court judge, the appeals court said Larson had in 2001 accepted an agreement with Warner that allowed the entertainment giant, which owns Superman publisher DC Comics, to retain rights to the character.
As evidence, it pointed to an October 2001 letter from Larson's then-attorney accepting terms of the agreement.
"Statements from the attorneys for both paries establish that the parties had undertaken years of negotiations, that they had resolved the last outstanding point in the deal during a conversation on October 15, 2001 and that the letter accurately reflected the material terms they had orally agreed to on that day," the judges wrote in their ruling.
In October, Warner Bros. defeated the heirs of Superman's other co-creator, Joseph Shuster, in court when Shuster's heirs attempted to reclaim their half of the copyright.
Attorney Marc Toberoff, who represents the Siegel and Shuster estates, is appealing that decision. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday's ruling in the Siegel case.
"The court’s decision paves the way for the Siegels finally to receive the compensation they negotiated for and which DC has been prepared to pay for over a decade," a Warner Bros. spokesman said in a statement. "We are extremely pleased that Superman’s adventures can continue to be enjoyed across all media platforms worldwide for generations to come."
Added attorney Daniel Petrocelli from law firm O'Melveny and Meyers, which represents Warner Bros. in the Superman litigation: "We are extremely pleased and grateful that justice has prevailed.
The studio's victory against Shuster's heirs allowed it to continue using Superman and most of his supporting cast and mythos. Thursday's decision will make it more difficult for Toberoff to wrest back control in further appeals.
Warner will release the Superman movie "Man of Steel" in June. Should that movie prove successful, the studio is now in a much better position to go ahead with plans for a sequel in 2014 and a "Justice League" movie that would team Superman with other superheroes in 2015.
If either Siegel or Shuster's heirs had retained control of the copyright, Warner would have had to negotiate new, likely more costly royalty agreements with them.
In October's ruling in the Shuster case, the judge noted that DC has paid both families more than $4 million since 1975, not counting medical benefits and bonuses.
Superman has generated more than $500 million at the domestic box office with five films and billions more from television series such as "Smallville," toys, games and comic books.