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A Los Angeles federal judge has ruled that the heirs of "Superman" co-creator Jerome Siegel, who sold his rights to the comic book character for a buy out of $130 to Detective Comics in 1938, is entitled to claim a share of the United States copyright to the character.
The ruling still leaves intact, Time Warner’s international rights to the character, which it owns through its DC Comics unit. The heirs
may also be entitled to payments directly from Time Warner’s film unit, Warner Brothers, which grossed $200 million at the box office with “Superman Returns” in 2006, or only from DC Comics "Superman" profits.
The ruling threatens to complicate Warner’s plans to make more films featuring "Superman", including another melancholy Bryan Singer sequel and a costume feature, directed by George "Mad Max" Miller, based on DC Comics’ “Justice League of America,” with Supes joined by "Batman", "Wonder Woman" and other superheroes.
If the ruling survives a Time Warner legal challenge, it may also open the door to a similar reversion of rights to the estate of co-creator Joe Shuster in 2013. That would give heirs of the two creators control over use of their lucrative character until at least 2033 — and perhaps longer, if Congress once again extends copyright terms.
After 2013, Time Warner couldn’t exploit any new Superman-derived works without a license from the Siegels and Shusters.
A similar ruling in 2006 allowed the Siegels to recapture their rights in the "Superboy" character, without determining whether "Superboy" was the basis for Warner Brothers’s “Smallville” television series (duh).
The judge’s 72-page order described how Siegel and Shuster, as teenagers at Glenville High School in Cleveland, collaborated on their school newspaper in 1932. They worked together on a short story, “The Reign of the Superman,” in which their character appeared as a villain. By 1937, the pair were offering publishers comic strips in which the classic "Superman" elements — cape, logo and Clark Kent alter-ego — were already set. When Detective Comics bought 13 pages of work for its new Action Comics series the next year, the company sent Mr. Siegel a check for $130, and received in return a release from both creators granting the company rights to Superman “to have and hold forever”.
In the late 1940s, a New York court upheld Detective Comics’ copyright, prompting Siegel and Shuster to drop their claim in exchange for $94,000.
In the 1970's, at the height of the "Superman" movie craze, DC Comics, gave the creators each a $20,000-per-year annuity that was later increased to $30,000.
In 1997, Mrs. Siegel and her daughter served copyright termination notices under provisions of a 1976 law that permits heirs, under certain circumstances, to recover rights to creations.
The “Superman Returns” sequel might require payments to the Siegels, should they prevail in a demand that the studio’s income, not just that of the comics unit, be subject to a court-ordered accounting.