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Laura Siegel Larson, Individually and As Personal Representative of the Estate of Joanne Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

April 18, 2013

LAURA SIEGEL LARSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF JOANNE SIEGEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., DC COMICS, AND DOES 1--10, DEFENDANTS. LAURA SIEGEL LARSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF JOANNE SIEGEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TIME WARNER INC., WARNER COMMUNICATIONS INC., WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., WARNER BROS. TELEVISION PRODUCTION INC., DC COMICS, AND DOES 1--10, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Otis D. Wright, II United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: SUPERBOY AND THE SUPERMAN ADS [04-cv-8776, ECF No. 222]

I.INTRODUCTION

On March 20, 2013, this Court granted Defendants' February 7, 2013 Motion for Summary Judgment in part, holding on remand from the Ninth Circuit that the parties' October 19, 2001 settlement agreement remained binding and enforceable. The Court also ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs addressing how that holding affected the parties' respective rights to Superboy and the Superman ad works. The Court now holds that the 2001 settlement agreement encompassed those works. The remainder of Defendants' Motion is therefore GRANTED, and this litigation of superhero proportions now draws to a close.

II.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On March 1, 1938, writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster signed an agreement selling Superman to DC Comics for $130. Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entm't Inc., 542 F. Supp. 2d 1098, 1107 (C.D. Cal. 2008). DC intended to publish Superman in the inaugural issue of Action Comics, which it promoted in advance in black-and-white advertisements in two of its other magazines (the "Ads"). Id. The Ads reproduced the cover of the forthcoming Action Comics No. 1 with accompanying text:

In 1938, following Superman's successful debut, Siegel "pitched the idea to [DC] of serializing a comic concerning the exploits of Superman as a young man." Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entm't Inc., 496 F. Supp. 2d 1111, 1114 (C.D. Cal. 2007.) DC twice declined to publish Siegel's proposed Superboy comic. Id. at 1115. But while Siegel was stationed abroad with the U.S. Army in 1943, DC published a five-page "Superboy" comic strip without Siegel's consent and without giving him notice. Id. Several rounds of litigation ensued, but suffice it to say for present purposes that the parties continue to dispute ownership, publication, and copyrightability of various aspects of Superboy.

In 1997, Laura Siegel Larson and Joanne Siegel (Siegel's daughter and now-deceased widow, respectively) served DC with a "nearly six-pound, 546-page termination notice" of Siegel's Superman copyright grants under 17 U.S.C. § 304(c). (Petrocelli Decl. in Support of Def.'s Supp. Br. ("Petrocelli Decl.") Ex. 11); Siegel v. Warner Bros. Entm't Inc., 658 F. Supp. 2d 1036, 1095 (C.D. Cal. 2009). This 1997 termination notice "applie[d] to each and every work (in any medium whatsoever, whenever created) that include[d] or embodie[d] any character, story element, or indicia reasonably associated with SUPERMAN or the SUPERMAN stores, such as, without limitation, Superman . . . Superboy, . . . [or] Smallville." (Petrocelli Decl. Ex. 11, at 93 n.1; see also Pl.'s Supp. Br. 3 ("[T]he 1997 Terminations applied to Siegel's Superman works published between 1938 and 1943, although they listed derivative works outside this 'window' out of an abundance of caution.").) In other words, the Notice purported on its face to cover not only Superman, but also Superboy and the Superman Ads.

Shortly before the termination's 1999 effective date, DC contested the scope and validity of 1997 termination notice and subsequently entered settlement negotiations with the Siegels. After four years, these negotiations culminated in the October 19, 2001 letter that the Ninth Circuit and this Court have found constitutes the operative agreement between the parties. The 2001 agreement, like the 1997 notice of termination, purported to cover Superboy and the Superman Ads. (See Petrocelli Decl. Ex. 12, at 647 (defining "The Property" subject to the settlement as "all Superman, Superboy and related properties (including, for example, Supergirl, Steel, Lois & Clark and Smallville), and the Spectre property, and includes all pre- and post-termination works (including the so-called Superman library, characters, names and trademarks relating to the property").)

But then efforts to reduce the 2001 agreement to a long-form contract broke down. As a result, the Siegels repudiated the agreement, served an additional notice of termination in 2002 purporting to recover the Superboy works, and sued DC in 2004 for declaratory relief with respect to the 1997 and 2002 notices of termination. The Siegels later served a subsequent 2012 notice of termination regarding the Ads, after Judge Larson held earlier in this litigation that the 2001 agreement was not binding and that the 1997 notice of termination failed to capture the Ads. The parties now dispute the effect of the 2001 settlement agreement on the Superboy and Ad works in light of the 2002 and 2012 notices of termination.

III.DISCUSSION

DC maintains that the October 19, 2001 agreement constituted a revocation and re-grant of the Siegels' copyright interests (if any) in the Superboy and Superman Ad works that precluded the Siegels' 2002 and 2012 termination notices for those works. (DC's Supp. Br. 3--4.) The Siegels respond that the October 19, 2001 agreement cannot constitute a revocation and re-grant, because it "contains no language of revocation, let alone the requisite express revocation." (Pl.'s Supp. Br. 9 (citing Milne, 430 F.3d at 1040--41, 1047--48; Mewborn, 532 F.3d at 980--81, 986, 988--89).)

Two important appellate decisions undergird the parties' revocation-and-re-grant arguments: Milne ex rel. Coyne v. Stephen Slesinger, Inc., 430 F.3d 1036 (9th Cir. 2005) and Penguin Group (USA) Inc. v. Steinbeck, 537 F.3d 193 (2d Cir. 2008). Milne concerned author A.A. Milne's classic Winnie the Pooh works. Milne, 430 F.3d at 1039. In 1930, Milne granted producer Stephen Slesinger certain copyright interests in Pooh in exchange for royalties. Id. Slesinger then transferred his Pooh rights to Stephen Slesinger, Inc. (SSI), which in turn granted its rights exclusively to Disney. Id. at 1039--40. Milne later died in 1956, survived by his widow and son, Christopher Robin. Id.

Twenty years later, Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act, which (among other things) extended the 1909 Act's renewal term and created a new termination right so that authors or certain of their heirs could take advantage of that extended term. Id. In 1983, faced with the possibility that Christopher Robin might seek to terminate his 1930 grant to SSI (but before any termination right had been exercised), Disney proposed that the parties renegotiate the rights to the Pooh works. Id. "Christopher accepted Disney's proposal and, using the bargaining power conferred by his termination right, negotiated and signed on April 1, 1983 a more lucrative deal with SSI and Disney that would benefit" Milne's heirs. Milne, 430 F.3d at 1040.

In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act ("CTEA"), Pub. L. No. 105-298, 112 Stat. 2827 (1998) (codified at 17 U.S.C. ยงยง 108, 203, 310--304). Of particular importance here, the CTEA further extended the term of copyright protection, granted an extended termination window only for pre-1978 copyright grants, and provided more favorable ...


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