DC Comics was not as invincible as it thought in its latest court battle against the heirs of Superman’s creators. A U.S. District Court in Los Angeles has denied DC Comics’ request for $500,000 in attorney fees from counsel for heirs of Joseph Shuster and Jerome Siegel, creators of the Man of Steel.
In October, 2012, DC Comics and Warner Bros. won a ruling against the heirs and their attorney, Marc Toberoff, for copyright violations. Two years earlier, the heirs had terminated their agreement with DC Comics for a joint-venture with Toberoff and his loan-out company, Pacific Pictures, giving it a controlling stake in the heirs’ Superman interests. But the L.A. federal court held that the 1992 copyright grant agreement among the parties could not be terminated, allowing DC’ Comics’ parent company, Warner, to develop future projects without the heirs’ authorization. In 2008, the district court further found that the Shuster and Siegel heirs violated DC’s copyright by entering into an agreement with each other without the comic publisher’s approval.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright, in his latest case ruling, rejected DC Comics’ argument for attorney fees from Toberoff and Pacific Pictures; the comics publisher said that since it had prevailed in two of three claims, these defendants simply should have conceded on a third, and since they did not, that cost plaintiffs $500,000 to litigate a claim, based on agreements that the opponents conceded were invalid. The judge said DC Comics’ motion “smacked of animus towards Toberoff” as he was singled out for punitive action based on an agreement that he did not sign. The court said the defendants claims were neither frivolous nor unreasonable and that they “sought to explore the boundaries of a relatively green area of copyright law and did so without traversing the bounds of reasonableness.”
The judge said that “punishing Toberoff with a $500,000 attorney’s fee award would send the clear message to defendants that litigating a claim with good faith, defenses was wrong.”
Wright issued a separate ruling favoring Toberoff and the heirs and rejecting DC Comics’ tortious interference claims, which the judge said were barred by the two-year statute of limitations. DC had claimed that Torberoff wrongfully induced the Siegels to end their negotiations with DC Comics. the publisher asserted counsel offered to license the heirs’ Superman rights and tried to persuade them to grant him rights to Superman that DC in fact already held.
This ruling follows the January decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, finding that the Siegel heirs had accepted a 2001 offer from DC Comics that permits the publisher to retain all rights to Superman, in exchange for $3 million in cash and contingent compensation worth millions.
As for Superman fans, it’s worth noting that these rulings made way for Warner’s scheduled June 14 theater release of the next Superman film – Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Russell Crowe and Henry Cavill. And here’s the new trailer for same: