Warner Bros. wins latest round in Superman copyright conundrum

Movie studio and DC Comics’ parent still sparring with heirs of the superhero’s creators

If only the Man of Steel were real that he could reverse the Earth’s rotation, turn back time and settle this squabble before it ever started. The epic battle for Superman’s rights has been dragging on for years now, as DC Comics, the longtime publisher of Superman comic books, and its parent Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., appealed a district court’s 2008 partial summary judgment decision.

The newest issue in the case hit newsstands Tuesday when a three-judge 9th Circuit panel ruled in favor of Warner Bros. and DC Comics in its declaratory judgment action against the comic book character’s creators’ heirs and their attorney.

For more than a decade, copyright attorney Marc Toberoff has represented Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, the heirs to Superman’s creators. Warner Bros. alleges that Toberoff induced the heirs’ families to nix their previous rights agreement with the comic company, as DC Comics was worried that it would lose the publishing rights to Superman when some of the rights to Clark Kent reverted to the estates of Siegel and Shuster. (The heirs already own half of the rights—the rest are due to revert to them in 2013.)

Warner Bros. claimed that Toberoff, who also owns film production company Pacific Pictures, was in an unethical position as Siegel and Shuster’s attorney because he allegedly was set to receive 40 percent of whatever the families ended up earning from Superman rights.

Warner Bros. also claims that Pacific Pictures had a deal in place to make new Superman films when Siegel and Shusterwon back the character’s rights, which it learned after documents were leaked to Warner Bros. by a former Toberoff associate. Pacific Pictures claims those documents were stolen in 2006. A judge overturned Toberoff’s anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) complaint against Warner Bros. last year.

On Tuesday, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain ruled that the documents in questions, which had been kept in confidentiality in court, are now admissible thanks to the ethical and professional concerns raised by Toberoff’s actions.

Despite Toberoff’s claims that the documents were still being investigated for theft and, therefore, should not be included in the case, the 9th Circuit panel unanimously disagreed.

“[G]iven that Congress has declined broadly to adopt a new privilege to protect disclosures of attorney-client privileged materials to the government, we will not do so here,” O’Scannlain wrote in his opinion.

For more on the story and greater analysis, read Reuters.

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