O'Melveny & Myers scored a big win for Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. on Thursday in the company's ugly copyright battle with the heirs to the creators of Superman.
In a 6-page ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel signed away their rights to the Man of Steel in a 2001 agreement with Warner Brothers. The Siegel family, represented by Hollywood attorney Marc Toberoff, had argued that the 2001 deal wasn't binding. The Ninth Circuit rejected that argument, noting that Siegel's then-lawyer called the agreement a "monumental accord." The ruling deals the Siegels a major blow in their decades-long bid to increase their share of the Superman profits.
Siegel and cartoonist Joseph Shuster created the Superman character in 1932, when they were high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. Six years later, they sold their rights in the character to Detective Comics (now Warner Brothers subsidiary DC Comics Inc.) for just $130 and a contract to supply the publisher with material. Decades later, Warner Brothers gave Siegel and Shuster lifetime pensions of $20,000 per year, even though it said it had "no legal obligation" to do so. After both Siegel and Shuster died in 1999, their family members tried to reclaim their copyrights based on a provision in the Copyright Act of 1976 that allows artists to regain control of their works after 35 yearsso-called "termination rights."
The Siegels reached a deal with Warner Brothers in 2001 in which they gave up their termination rights in exchange for $3 million in cash upfront and several million more in contingent compensation. With Toberoff's help, they later tried to undo that deal, arguing that there was no meeting of the minds, and therefore no binding contract. But the Ninth Circuit found that an October 2001 letter by the Siegels' then-attorney "constituted an acceptance of the terms negotiated between the parties, and thus was sufficient to create a contract."