Superman – The Right of Termination
The character Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933. In 1938 they signed a publishing agreement with DC Comics for only $130 which unfortunately (for them) was determined to be an assignment of all of their copyright rights of Superman. An attempt to get the contract annulled in a New York State court in 1947 failed.
According to the 1909 copyright law which was in effect at that time, a copyright lasted from a term of 28 years from when it was published (or registered for unpublished works). The copyright was eligible for renewal during the final 28th year of the term. Siegel and Shuster attempted to assert a right of termination for the renewal term in a New York Federal District Court, but failed because the District Court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals determined that their original assignment in 1934 included the renewal grant as well in Siegel v. National Periodical Publications, Inc., 508 F.2d 909, 912-913 (2d Cir. 1974).
Perhaps in order to avoid bad publicity before the movie Superman was released in 1978, DC granted Siegel and Shuster a life pension and health care in 1975. Joe Shuster died in 1992, survived by his siblings Frank (died in 1996) and Jean. Nonetheless, DC continued to make payments to the heirs of Siegel and Shuster.
The 1976 copyright act increased the renewal term to 47 years. The 1998 copyright term extension act increased the renewal term to 67 years, but included stronger termination rights for authors. An amendment in 1999 extended this termination right to heirs.
Jerry Siegel’s heirs served a termination rights copyright notice on DC in 1999. Shuster’s sister Jean, on the other hand, continued to receive pension payments ($25,000/year) and bonus payments from DC, and expressed her commitment “to honor” her previous 1992 agreement. Nonetheless, on November 7, 2003, Mark Warren Peary (as substitute executor of the Shuster estate) served on DC a notice of termination of the prior grants of Shuster’s Superman copyrights.
However, the District Court determined that the 1992 agreement superseded the 1938 assignment. Therefore, because the right of termination in the 1976 and 1998 copyright acts only extends to pre-1978 assignments, there was no right to terminate. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court’s conclusion in November 2013.
Authors and authors’ heirs of pre-1978 works should be aware of their rights of termination. Pay attention when signing any papers increasing royalties or payments to ensure that you are not signing away your renewal rights!