LOS ANGELES (CN) - DC Comics' bid to recoup $500,000 in attorney's fees from the lawyer for the heirs of Superman's creators "smacks of animus," a federal judge wrote in the first of two rulings against the publisher in its long-running battle over rights to the Man of Steel.
In May 2010, Warner Bros. and its subsidiary DC Comics sued attorney Marc Toberoff, claiming he persuaded the heirs of Superman creators Joseph Shuster and Jerome Siegel to terminate their agreements with DC Comics and file copyright notices. The heirs then allegedly entered a joint venture with Toberoff and his loan-out company, Pacific Pictures, giving the attorney a controlling stake in the heirs' interest in Superman.
Last October, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright handed DC Comics a significant victory when it ruled that a 1992 copyright grant agreement between Shuster's heirs and DC Comics could not be terminated. This reportedly meant that DC Comics' parent company, Warner Bros., could develop Superman projects without authorization from the co-creators' estates.
DC Comics had also convinced the court that a 2008 agreement between the Shuster and Siegel heirs violated copyright law. That consent agreement barred either family from striking a deal with DC Comics without the other's approval.
In last week's ruling, Wright found it "surprising" that DC Comics sought attorney fees only from Marc Toberoff and his loan-out company, Pacific Pictures, even though numerous defendants were named in the case.
"DC's entire motion smacks of animus toward Toberoff," Wright wrote.
"DC singles out one defendant - Toberoff - for a punitive attorneys'-fees award based on an agreement to which he was not a party. Toberoff only signed the 2008 agreement as the Shuster heirs' attorney."
DC Comics chose not to seek attorney's fees from the heirs, however, saying they too "were victims of Marc Toberoff and his illicit schemes to interfere with DC's rights for his own private gain."
The publisher argued that Toberoff and Pacific Pictures should be forced to pay $500,000 in attorney's fees because that's what it paid to litigate a claim based on agreements the defendants conceded were invalid. It said Toberoff and Pacific Pictures should have instead stipulated to a judgment in DC Comic's favor.
But the judge viewed it differently. He said Toberoff and his clients "sought to explore the boundaries of a relatively green area of copyright law and did so without traversing the bounds of reasonableness." Their position was "neither frivolous nor objectively unreasonable," he wrote.
"Punishing Toberoff and Pacific Pictures with a $500,000 attorneys'-fee award would send a clear message to copyright defendants that litigating a claim with good-faith, supported defenses is wrong," Wright wrote. "That is undoubtedly not a message this court wants to send to Toberoff or others."
In a separate ruling, Wright rejected DC Comics' tortious interference claims against Toberoff and the Shuster and Siegel heirs.
DC Comics had accused Toberoff of trying to get the Shuster heirs to grant him the rights to Superman that had already been granted to DC Comics.
The attorney also "tortiously interfered" with DC Comic's relationship with Joanne Siegel and Laura Siegel Larson by offering to license their Superman rights in August 2001, according to DC Comics.
The publisher said this wrongfully induced the Siegels to end their negotiations with DC Comics.
Wright sided with Toberoff and the heirs, ruling that DC Comics' claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations.
"DC had more than enough knowledge by November 2006 to have tickled a suspicion that its business relationship with the Shusters was being tampered with," Wright wrote. "It was then - and not when DC gathered the smoking-gun evidence supporting each element of its cause of action - that it should have filed suit."
Wright did not rule on DC Comics' claim of unfair competition under California, calling it "presently moot" because of previous judgments, but said that could change based on an appeal before the 9th Circuit.
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