Superman Creator’s Heir Loses Ruling to Time Warner Over Rights

An heir to one of Superman’s creators lost a court ruling to Time Warner Inc. in her bid to reclaim the rights to the film and comic book hero.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco today said all the elements necessary for formation of a binding agreement were present in a 2001 letter from Laura Siegel Larson’s lawyer to Time Warner’s DC Comics unit. The court reversed a 2008 finding by a lower-court judge in favor of Larson, whose father, Jerome, conjured the superhero with Joseph Shuster in the 1930s.

“Statements from the attorneys for both parties establish that the parties had undertaken years of negotiation, that they had resolved the last outstanding point in the deal during a conversation on Oct. 16, 2001, and that the letter accurately reflected the material terms they had orally agreed to on that day,” the three-judge panel said in a unanimous ruling.

Larson is seeking to terminate the rights agreement her father and Shuster made in 1938.

The three-judge panel returned the case to U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II in Los Angeles with instructions to reconsider his earlier findings.

$20 Million

If it’s proven there is a valid contract that can be enforced, Larson would immediately get a $20 million payment in exchange for her father’s share in some of the earliest Superman stories, Time Warner lawyer Dan Petrocelli said during arguments before the appeals court in November.

DC Comics and Time Warner’s Warner Bros. Entertainment unit contend the Siegel family wanted to escape the 2001 agreement because they were approached by a different lawyer, Marc Toberoff, who proposed a plan to get them more money.

Toberoff contended there was never an agreement because Warner Bros. lawyers changed the terms of what was then only a deal in principle.

Wright, who inherited the Superman cases after the judge originally assigned to the matter went into private practice, ruled in October that the Shuster heirs forfeited their rights in a 1992 agreement with DC Comics that boosted a survivor payment for the late artist’s brother and sister from $5,000 to $25,000.

Because DC Comics and Warner Bros. retained that half, they are free under U.S. copyright law to exploit those rights by making another Superman movie due out next year, as long as they account for any profits they may owe to the Siegel heirs.

A new Superman film is scheduled be released by Warner Bros. on June 14.

The cases are Larson v. Warner Bros., 11-55863, and DC Comics v. Pacific Pictures Corp., 11-56934, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.