After a surprising victory in 2008, Siegel attorney Marc Toberoff decided to press for the rights to more Superman material.
Instead, he lost everything that the Siegel heirs and he himself had won.
Today the Ninth Circuit made public its latest rulings on the Siegel and Pacific Pictures cases. When the 2008 Superman opinion came down I wrote an explanatory Q&A post, and since there’s a lot of complex material to review we’ll follow that format once again. If you have additional questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section below.
In the simplest possible terms, what happened in the Siegel case?
The Siegels 2008 victory is all but officially null and void. The Siegel heirs will instead receive what they are owed under the 2001 settlement agreement.
In the simplest possible terms, what happened in the Pacific Pictures case?
Toberoff lost his attempt to quash DC’s lawsuit against him and his production company. According to DC, Toberoff unlawfully interfered with the settlement agreement between DC and the Siegel heirs. Based on what happens at trial, Toberoff could end up owing DC millions of dollars in damages and attorneys fees.
Do today’s cases create precedent that can be used against other creators?
The Siegel case was issued as a memorandum disposition. A memo dispo is not to be cited as precedent – it is simply a ruling that applies to the case in question. The court does this when the law in the ruling is straightforward–ruling in a memo avoids adding precedential language that could be interpreted in unintended ways that make the law more complicated.
The Pacific Pictures case was issued in two parts. Toberoff lost in a memo dispo, which likewise means it is not a binding precedent. The court did, however, issue a precedential opinion in regard to a procedural matter–namely, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear Toberoff’s appeal in the Pacific Pictures case. He won that minor point, but it didn’t do him any good.
Is the Supreme Court likely to reverse either of these rulings?
Although members of the Supreme Court have criticized the use of memo dispos, in practice the Court is far less likely to take a case that has been decided in this manner.
The reason? In most cases the law really is pretty straightforward. Without, for example, a circuit split on an important issue, the Court has little reason to stir up the dust by flipping well-established law.
If the 2001 Siegel settlement was so straightforward, why did Toberoff go forward with the Siegel copyright lawsuit?
Personally, he saw an opportunity to get a percentage of the Superman material for himself and his production company. He persuaded the Siegel + Shuster heirs that they could win; they gave him a big cut of the property; he filed the lawsuits.
Strategically, it’s evident from filings in the Kirby lawsuit that Toberoff considered the Ninth Circuit–and particularly the more liberal judges–to be more friendly legal territory. Not only did the law work against him on this score, but the ample settlement and DC’s retcon of Toberoff as a corporate carpetbagger substantially changed the rhetoric of the case.
Legally, the Siegel settlement was based on what’s called a term sheet, which as an agreement reached before the whole thing is written down in a detailed final contract. Based on the detail of the term sheet and the law of the applicable jurisdiction, it’s possible for a term sheet to be binding even if the parties did not go through with a detailed final contract. The Siegel’s previous attorney before Toberoff thought that the 2001 Siegel term sheet was sufficiently specific to be binding, and the Ninth Circuit agreed.
In the end, did Facebook and the Winklevii have any effect of the outcome?
Yes. As I discussed at greater length in this post, DC relied on the Facebook/Winklevoss twins case to argue that the term sheet in the Siegel – DC negotiations was binding. The court agreed–the crux of the judges’ Siegel ruling today is a discussion of the Facebook ruling and how it applies to the Siegel term sheet.
For the Siegel case, it’s all over but the lower court filings. With a binding settlement in place, the subsequent Siegel lawsuit is moot. We can expect the district court to follow the Ninth Circuit’s lead on this score and vacate the 2008 opinion.
Legally, that means the 2008 Siegel victory never existed. However, the 2001 settlement is binding, which means the Siegel estate and his daughter, Laura Larson, get a multimillion dollar payout.
In the Pacific Pictures case, we move to proceedings on the various claims by DC against Toberoff and Pacific Pictures. Daniel Petrocelli, Warner Brothers’ outside counsel, is out for blood — after 2008 Toberoff had the reputation of being a Hollywood dragon slayer, and this is a real opportunity to take Toberoff down.
If the Siegel heirs get a settlement worth millions of dollars, didn’t they actually win?
If they cared only for money, sure. But the Superman case was about so much more than that. As I said on The Beat last year, “the Siegel heirs have something to lose–they vindicated their father by winning a historic lawsuit in the lower court, and the appeal could take that away.”