There’s a lot of shame to go around when one looks back at how creators, and the rights to their creations, were treated back when comic books were still a fledgling industry. It gets even more confused when you throw in the truck loads of cash made when these characters started to appear on the big screen. Something that back then, wasn’t really a consideration when these characters were created. Hell, it wasn’t until recently that some creators actually got any compensation or credit for their creation in movie credits. All because the lawyers and purse string monitors didn’t want to accept their shameful role in the whole thing or loss even a percentage of all that wonderful superhero movie money.
Now there’s a flip side of that coin, one in which the creators signed a contract and accepted payment for their creations. Why should they get anything else? Should they have the right to keep going back to the trough for more? The whole thing is a quagmire that mixes the law with all the emotions surrounding those wonderful characters. Marvel has… I mean had, its Jack Kirby issues. They recently settled their issues in an out of court settlement.
That left the Shuster estate’s filing for review as the biggest example of comic book creator rights still in the courts. That changed today when the Supreme Court denied a review over who owns the rights to Superman. The estate of co-creator Joseph Shuster had filed for the review citing the termination provisions in the 1976 Copyright Act as a means to reclaim their portion of the rights to Superman.
Last year the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling that the 1992 agreement made by Shuster’s surviving sister Jean Peavy, with DC in which she requested that DC help pay her brother’s final debts and expenses. DC agreed and included an increase to the then current survivor benefits, but Paul Levitz, DC’s Executive Vice President included that:
This agreement would represent the author/heir’s last and final deal with DC and would fully resolve any past, present or future claims against DC.
That phrase resulted in the judge ruling:
…the broad and all-encompassing language of the 1992 Agreement unmistakably operates to supersede all prior grants.
The Shuster estate continued their case in appeal, with attorneys Marc Toberoff and Tom Goldstein, the legal pair that were also the lead attorneys in the Marvel/Kirby case. The main focus of this case was:
…whether and under what circumstances may the Copyright Act’s inalienable termination right be eliminated by contract?
After that Appellate court ruling, the case ended up in the lap of the Supreme Court where the court decided to refuse to review the appellate court decision. That pretty much puts that case to rest.
You might think that Warner Brothers will be sleeping easier now, but I wouldn’t call this a victory as much as the continuation of a public relations nightmare. Now that Marvel has at least come to an understanding with the estate of Jack Kirby and we’ll be seeing Jack’s name up on the big screen a lot more. One has to wonder if the public might focus their frustration about creator rights towards DC and Warner Brothers.
Marvel has been working overtime it seems to make some restitution and help some of their creators that have fallen on hard times or been hurt and in need of medical and financial assistance. I would imagine that the Shuster lawyers would have been amenable to a settlement if the Court had decided to review the case. Much like they did with Marvel and the Kirby estate.
If DC and Warner Brothers truly want to put this behind them, they should reach out to the Shuster and Simon estates and come to some kind of agreement. They hold the legal high ground, now it’s time to take the moral one as well.