Warner Bros. So Distraught Over Losing Superman Rights, It Personally Sues The Lawyer Who Won
from the getting-a-bit-personal dept
We’ve covered the ongoing fight over copyright termination rights lately, as it’s quickly becoming a big deal. While the whole concept shows part of how messed up copyright law has become, one element included to help artists (rather than just big companies) when copyright terms were extended, were opportunities for the original artists or their estates to “terminate” the assignment of copyright to a company. The details are highly technical and a bit of a mess, and the entertainment industry has worked hard for years to try to bury termination rights (most famously when the RIAA had a Congressional staffer — who was hired just months later to a high-paying RIAA job — slip some text into a bill in the middle of the night that took termination rights away from musicians, until musicians freaked out and Congress backtracked). Even so, the big entertainment industry companies have been fighting against every attempt at artists or their estates reclaiming their copyrights for years. The most famous case was the case over Superman’s rights — which concluded last year with the estate of Jerry Siegel winning back certain rights (while letting Warner retain other Superman-related rights).
The lawyer who represented the Siegel estate, Marc Toberoff, has been pushing content creators and their estates to understand (and make use of) termination rights for a long time. And it’s no surprise that we’re now seeing new efforts under way from musicians and others, including comic book artist Jack Kirby. Kirby, not surprisingly, is also represented by Toberoff, who isn’t just representing these artists in helping them get back their copyrights, but he’s apparently set up his own production studio to help make use of those copyrights once he helps the artists get them back.
Apparently, Warner Bros. (a frequent target of Toberoff) has had enough and has decided to sue Toberoff personally, claiming that… well… basically that he’s a jerk and a savvy business person, which I didn’t quite realize was illegal. Specifically, they seem to be claiming that Toberoff “manipulated” the creators of Superman, having them hand over a large percentage of the rights to the character if he was able to successfully manage the termination. Part of Warner’s complaint is that Siegel and Shuster had apparently signed agreements promising not to exercise their termination rights, but as I’m sure Warner’s lawyers know (they must know this, right?), you cannot contractually give up your termination rights, or all entertainment industry companies would require that in their standard contract.
Frankly, reading through the complaint — which you can read below — it looks like Warner is attempting to retry the Superman termination rights case that it already lost:
While I still think there are all sorts of problems with termination rights in copyright law, and have no doubt that Toberoff had plenty of reasons beyond helping artists get back their copyrights in agreeing to represent these artists, it is somewhat amusing to see Hollywood flail around so desperately to try to keep absolutely monopolistic control over these rights. Of course, if the copyright law that was in place when Superman was created was still in place, the character of Superman would no longer be covered by copyright at all today, but would, instead, be in the public domain. So, forgive me for feeling little sympathy for anyone involved in this tug of war over who gets to exploit the creation for more money.