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In-house legal jobs could be all about Superman and Lassie in 2013 after landmark copyright win

Posted by: Laurence Simons 19/10/12

Here are some things that Superman can do, for those non-Superman fans in the crowd (nobody): cut through bank safes with the power of his EYES. Fly backwards so fast the entire planet goes back in TIME. Fall hopelessly in love with women who have exclusively alliterative NAMES. Disguise himself from the rest of the world with the merest pair of GLASSES. Here are some things Superman cannot do: bust himself out of a copyright contract owned by DC COMICS.

As Ars Technica reports, DC has fended off attempts by the heirs of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster after a two-year legal wrangle. And this is important for a couple of reasons: firstly, because it's one of the most keenly contested legal battles under the 1976 Copyright Act since its inception; and secondly because it means the release of next year's Man of Steel movie won't be delayed. Phew.


Basically, the 1976 Copyright Act allows artists, musicians and creators to make an appeal against any transfer of copyright ownership after a period of 35 years. It means if you created a blockbuster album, movie or superhero franchise and sold it under financial duress, you have a second bite at that delicious copyright cherry as long as you are patient and the art in question is still bringing in much money.
Superman fans reading this (everyone) will of course note that Clark Kent and his alter ego were first committed to print in 1938, which makes the work more than viable for a termination claim. But the case is muddied somewhat by a contract the family of co-creator Joe Shuster signed back in 1992 following the artist's death. Brother Frank Shuster and sister Jean Peavy signed a deal with DC Comics that covered Joe's debts and agreed to pay Jean $25,000 a year for life. The deal ended up earning Peavy more than $600,000, but Peavy's son - Mark Warren Peary - moved in 2003 to claim termination anyway. This month, DC Comics' lawyers argued that the 1992 deal superseded any previous contract. The District Judge Otis Wright ultimately agreed. 

The Superman case is not a cut-and-dry one - the party attempting to reclaim the copyright through termination is Pacific Pictures Corporation, a joint venture between the prosecuting attorney Marc Toberoff and the Shuster heirs, which also has a litter of other copyright termination claims in the works. Ultimately, the decision to leave the copyright in the hands of DC comes from the 1992 contract that agreed to Jean Peavy's pension - as Ars's Joe Mullin notes, a previous case in 2008 saw the daughter of Lassie Come Home author Eric Knight successfully win the rights to the literary work from Classic Media Inc.

So anyway, get used to it: 2013 marks 35 years since the first tranche of works protected under the 1976 Act in 1978 become eligible for a termination battle, so legal wrangles of this nature should become more common over this year and next. For in-house lawyers of the kind of entertainment megacorps that produce works based on such intellectual copyrights, it could be a busy couple of years. For everyone else: there is a new Superman movie coming out. Let's just enjoy that.