Daniel Best, 20th Century Danny Boy, who is the go-to guy for following this and many other comic-related legal battles, reports today that there’s a surprising new development in the fight to control Superman. Ahead of the anticipated November 2013 copyright termination filing by Shuster’s heirs, DC has asserted that a 1992 agreement with Joe Shuster‘s sister Jean Peavy, shortly after Shuster’s death, leaves the Shuster heirs with no statutory basis for terminating the copyright. Best says in part:
In between appeals against the Siegel heirs, consisting of claim and counter claim and co-counter claim, came this latest round of filings, and their associated documents consisting of just under 1,000 separate pages, apparently from the collection of Paul Levitz. DC’s stance is that, for a mere $600,000, which has already been paid to Joe Shusters late brother and surviving sister, DC Comics want the court to ratify their claim of ownership of the Shuster’s 50% of the Superman copyright. If the court does agree with DC Comics, it would mean that the Shuster heirs cannot go through with their copyright termination notices, which is expected to happen in November 2013, thus forcing the Siegels, and Marc Toberoff, into a stalemate.
You can see complete scans of DC’s filing and some additional analysis by Daniel Best on his blog.
Meanwhile, here’s a text excerpt from DC’s filing, which has a hearing date set next month on August 20, according to the document:
B. Jean Peavy’s 1992 Agreement With DC
Four days after filing her affidavit in the California probate court, Jean wrote to DC, identifying herself as “her to [Joe Shuster’s] Will” and asking DC to pay Shuster’s “final debts and expenses.” SUF 15. DC offered to cover Joe’s debts and increase survivor payments to his brother Frank from $5,000 to $25,000 per year. SUF 16. On September 10, 1992, Frank sent a letter to DC’s then-Executive Vice President, Paul Levitz, stating he was “extremely pleased” with the increased payments, and asking, after “discuss[ing] this good news with [Jean],” that payments be made directly to Jean, who would “send [Frank] whatever money [he] wanted as a gift which would not be taxable to [him].” SUF 17. Frank asked if he and Jean could meet with Levitz in New York to discuss the issue. Id.
Levitz dealt with scores of authors and heirs during his decades running DC. SUF 18. When DC agreed to grant an author or heir’s request for additional money, Levitz would give them the same admonition: this agreement would represent the author/heir’s last and final deal with DC, and would fully resolve any past, present, or future claims against DC. Id. Levitz reiterated this condition to Frank and Jean in 1992, who confirmed they understood and agreed. Id.
Following this discussion, the parties executed an agreement on October 2, 1992. It confirmed that DC would cover Shuster’s debts and pay Jean $25,000 a year for the rest of her life. SUF 19. In exchange, Jean and Frank re-granted all of Joe Shuster’s rights (including any Superman copyrights) to DC and vowed never to assert a claim to such rights. The 1992 Agreement stated, in pertinent part:
We [DC] ask you to confirm by your signatures below that this agreement fully settles all claims to any payments or other rights or remedies which you may have under any other agreement or otherwise, whether now or hereafter existing regarding any copyrights, trademarks, or other property right in any and all work created in whole or in part by your brother, Joseph Shuster, or any works based thereon. In any event, you now grant us any such rights and release us, our licensees and all others acting with our permission, and covenant not to assert any claim of right, by suit or otherwise, with respect to the above, now and forever. SUF 19 (emphasis added).
Over the enxt decade, DC maintained good relations with the Shusters, and Jean and Levitz corresponded regularly. SUF 20. In the close to 60 letters back and forth between Paul and Jean, Jean thanked DC for its generosity, reaffirmed the 1992 Agreement, and requested bonus payments in excess of those required. Id. In a 1993 letter, Jean confirmed she would “stick to our bargain” and not attempt “to reclaim the SUPERMAN copyright,” but asked for an increase in payments “plus a yearly increment to account for inflation.” SUF 21. In 1999–after Congress amended copyright statute to grant additional statutory heirs termination rights, and after learning that Jerry Siegel’s heirs had served Superman copyright termination notices on DC–Jean reiterated her commitment “to honor” the 1992 Agreement, and again asked for a bonus:
I have learned from the Internet that Joanne Siegel has filed copyrigh claim for SUPERMAN. I want you to know that I intend to continue to honor our pension agreement. I would, however, aprecieate a generous bonus for this year as you have done many times in the past. SUF 22.
1n 1993, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 200, and 2001, DC provided additional bonus to Jean, ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. SUF 23. In one instance when Jean asked for more, DC made clear that Jean had no legal rights to make such requests, but would pay her a bonus anyway, which she thanked DC for doing. SUF 24. DC paid the Shusters over $600,000 under the 1992 Agreement and as special bonuses, and DC continues to make payments to Jean to this day, SUF 25–providing her the very security that she and Frank requested in 1992.