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9th Circuit Holds Back-to-Back|Hearings on Superman Rights

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - Warner Brothers and DC Comics appeared in a doubleheader before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, facing off against those who claim they own the rights to Superman.

Joseph Shuster and Jerome Siegel created the legendary comic book character in 1932.

In the first hearing, Laura Siegel Larson challenged a partial ruling that enforces a rights agreement her father negotiated in 1938 with Warner Bros. and DC Comics.

The second hearing involved an attempt by attorney Marc Toberoff and Pacific Pictures to revive claims under California's Anti-SLAPP law.

Siegel and Shuster's heirs allegedly entered into a joint venture with Toberoff's Pacific Pictures Corp. that granted the attorney a controlling stake in Superman.

After Congress amended copyright law to grant the heirs termination rights in 1999, the Siegel heirs sent DC Comics a copyright termination notice. The Shuster heirs also served DC Comics with notice of termination in 2003.

Joanne Siegel and Siegel Larson, represented by Toberoff, filed suit in 2004.

Representing Larson on appeal, Toberoff argued that there was no binding contract between Warner and Larson when they negotiated a settlement in 2001, thus granting her termination rights.

An Oct. 19 letter between Warner and Larson's attorney did not immortalize the terms of the deal because of subsequent counter offers between his client and the media company, Toberoff said.

He added that Warner never once mentioned the existence of a settlement agreement before Larson sued Warner to enforce termination.

"They were totally silent for three years about that," Toberoff said. "They came up with this concocted defense when we filed suit to enforce the termination right."

But Warner attorney, Daniel Petrocelli of O'Melveny and Myers, said the settlement was a finalized deal. He said a trial is necessary to decide the "lynchpin issue of whether the parties reached an agreement."

The letter resulted from "back-an-forth negotiations" over three years, Petrocelli noted.

"There's no question that this document contains sufficient terms that a court could never look at this document and conclude as a matter of law that it's not sufficient for the contract," he said.

Arguing for Pacific Pictures in the second case, Richard Kendall with Kendall Brill Klieger asked the appeals court to throw out claims that Toberoff induced Siegel and Shuster's heirs to breach their agreements with DC Comics and file copyright notices.

He said the District Court should have found that California's Anti-SLAPP law, which allows defendants to strike complaints arising from a protected activity, covers Toberoff.

But DC Comics' attorney, Matthew Kline with O'Melveny and Myers, said that California's Anti-SLAPP statute did not apply for "one simple reason" - Toberoff's activities were not protected.

He said that Toberoff had acted as a businessman, not as an attorney, and had made a fraudulent business offer to buy the rights for $15 million.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright granted DC Comics' motion for partial summary judgment, finding that Shuster heirs cannot renegotiate copyrights for the Man of Steel, because they signed a binding agreement with DC Comics more than 20 years ago.

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