What may just be the FINAL final decision in the long running case to get the rights to Superman back to the Siegel family was announced on Wednesday, with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Warner Bros. favor, citing that a 2001 agreement signed by the late Joanna Siegel was in fact binding. The Siegels and their attorney Marc Toberoff has argued that by filing the right of termination for Superman’s copyright later on, that agreement was not valid, however the court ruled otherwise. As longtime observer Eric Gardner at THR notes, the case has become “a never-ending battle with judicial opinions getting shorter and shorter — probably a sign of legal fatigue.” Is there a chance this could go to the Supreme court? Read on.
While the ruling does seem to end a bitter battle that lasted most of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel’s life and not in his favor, the ruling does, in a roundabout way, affirm that a) Superman was not work for hire (this would have been very hard to argue given the clear creation of the character long before Siegel and Shuster sold it to National Publications for $132) and b) when the Siegels filed for copyright termination in 1999, they did regain the copyright of Superman until the 2001 agreement.
First, it’s a memorandum decision – a “memo dispo” for short, or “memorandum disposition.” A memo dispo is typically a sign that a case was considered a slam dunk to decide. Technically, it’s non-precendential — the idea is that such cases are clearly decided by existing precedent, so there’s no need to risk complicating the law with an opinion that might be construed in ways the court didn’t intend. What matters is the ruling specific to the parties, nothing more.
As for the decision itself, the court finds, as before, that the 2001 agreement was a valid settlement and that DC owns both Superman and Superboy. The court also affirms the lower court’s decision that Toberoff’s new argument that the Siegels rescinded this agreement was waived, since Toberoff didn’t raise it in a timely fashion and due to Joanna’s death, DC would be prejudiced by having to re-litigate the case.
That said, there is one interesting part of the case for comics history — the appellate court upholds the lower court’s amended opinion recognizing that the 1999 termination was valid. Central to this: the appellate court states that it could find no error in Judge Larson’s original holding that Siegel’s and Shuster’s early Superman works were not work for hire. So score one for the family.
This part of the case could be another reason the ruling is nonprecedential. Technically, because of the 2001 settlement the subsequent lawsuit was erased. From a legal perspective, Judge Larson’s ruling never happened. Yet here, the court preserves Judge Larson’s ruling that the original Superman material was not done at DC’s instance and expense. What’s more, the court effectively holds that the Siegels co-owned Superman from the date of termination in 1999 until the settlement in 2001.
Will Toberoff appeal to the Supreme Court? If he does, it wouldn’t be a surprise, but it would once again be superfluous. The settlement might cut him out of the deal, but the family is getting an eight-figure settlement and the historical vindication Siegel and Shuster had for so long been denied.
So with that just about that, it’s on to the REAL battle Batman v Superman.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.