Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Warner Wins Latest Round in Superman Saga

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - In a blow to those who claim to hold rights to the Superman franchise, the 9th Circuit ruled that Warner Bros. owns the iconic DC comics character.

The federal appeals court issued two rulings Thursday on the issue. The first, an unpublished opinion, notes that the family of Superman co-creator Jerome Siegel agreed to a 50 percent stake in Superman through a decade-old letter drafted by family attorney Marc Toberoff.

Siegel's daughter Laura Siegel Larson argued that there was no binding contract with Warner after the parties negotiated a settlement in 2001, allowing her to exercise termination rights.

The studio appealed after a federal judge found that the family deserved a share of profits from the Superman franchise.

Toberoff told the 9th Circuit late last year that the five-page letter did not serve as a contract because of subsequent counter offers between his client and the media company.

The 9th Circuit was not convinced.

The trial court "failed to address" whether the letter "constituted an acceptance of terms negotiated between the parties, and thus was sufficient to create a contract," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for a three-judge panel.

"We hold, as a matter of law, that the October 19, 2001, letter did constitute such an acceptance," he added.

"Statements from the attorneys for both parties establish that the parties had undertaken years of negotiations, that they had resolved the last outstanding point in the deal during a conversation on October 16, 2001, and that the letter accurately reflected the material terms they had orally agreed to on that day," the six-page opinion states.

"Man of Steel," a reboot of the Superman franchise, is in the can, and had already been scheduled for a summer release prior to the ruling.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright gave DC Comics partial summary judgment in October, finding that heirs to the other Superman creator, Joe Shuster, cannot renegotiate copyrights when they signed a binding agreement with DC Comics more than 20 years ago.

Toberoff had also challenged accusations that he induced Siegel and Shuster's heirs to breach their agreements with DC Comics and file copyright notices.

The families' attorney argued that he should be shielded under California's Anti-SLAPP law, which allows defendants to strike complaints arising from a protected activity.

But DC, the plaintiff in that lawsuit, 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.

Judge Wright had rejected Toberoff's motion to strike DC's intentional interference and unfair competition claims, finding Toberoff's conduct unprotected.

On appeal, DC urged the 9th Circuit to find that Batzel v. Smith, which would allow Toberoff to request an interlocutory appeal of an anti-SLAPP motion, was "no longer good law" after a Supreme Court's finding in Mohawk Indus. v. Carpenter.

This appeal brought a published opinion Thursday from the same panel of 9th Circuit judges.

Reinhardt noted that Mohawk Industries means that a "collateral order doctrine" - the legal bar for availability of interlocutory appeals - does "not permit an interlocutory appeal of a discovery order requiring production of documents over which a party asserts attorney-client privilege."

But the judge said that nonetheless Batzel "remains good law."

"We hold that the denial of a motion to strike made pursuant to California's anti-SLAPP statute remains among the class of orders for which an immediate appeal is available," Reinhardt wrote. "This is especially so given the particular public interests that the anti-SLAPP statute attempts to vindicate. It would be difficult to find a value of a 'high[er] order' than the constitutionally-protected rights to free speech and petition that are at the heart of California's anti-SLAPP statute. Such constitutional rights deserve particular solicitude within the framework of the collateral order doctrine."

The court concluded that denial of Toberoff's motion to strike DC's intentional interference and unfair competition claims were "immediately appealable."

Judge Sidney Thomas and Senior U.S. District Judge John Sedwick, sitting by designation from Alaska, joined Reinhardt's two opinions.

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