Warner Bros may have won the larger legal war over who owns the rights to Superman but they seem to be losing their battle against the lawyer who sought to retain the copyright for the heirs of the hero’s creators. Today attorney Marc Toberoff was freed from paying attorney fees for the case (read order here) and had two tortious interference claims against him knocked out by a U.S. District judge (read order here). The court denied WB and its subsidiary DC Comics the $500,000 in attorney’s fees that they wanted as a pound of flesh from Toberoff for the long running case. And Judge Otis Wright made it very clear he believed the action by WB and DC was personal against the lawyer who represented the estates of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. “What is surprising is DC’s motivation in seeking attorneys’ fees solely against one Defendant. DC’s entire Motion smacks of animus toward Toberoff,” wrote the judge in today’s order. “Punishing Toberoff and Pacific Pictures with a $500,000 attorneys’-fees award would send a clear message to copyright defendants that litigating a claim with good-faith supported defenses is wrong. That is undoubtedly not a message this Court wants to send to Toberoff or others,” he added in the 12-page order.
The long ongoing copyright case over who owns the rights to Superman just got very personal. Attorneys for Warner Bros (which owns DC Comics) late Wednesday night claimed Superman heirs attorney Marc Toberoff has “systematically suppressed relevant evidence” and filed a motion (read it here) against the lawyer and the estates of the superhero’s co-creators. The filing seeks terminating sanctions and an evidentiary hearing for November 12. But this morning, Deadline was given a letter (original here) in response from Laura Siegel Larson — the daughter of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and Joanne Siegel, who served as the original model for Lois Lane. Larson, herself a retired award-winning journalist now suffering from multiple sclerosis, says she will never give up “fighting for what’s right”. She charges that Warner Bros has spent $35 million on corporate attorneys who now include Daniel Petrocelli, Matthew Kline and Cassandra Seto of O’Melveny & Myers. Here it is edited (and follows one written by her late mother directly to Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes):
October 11, 2012
Dear Superman Fans Everywhere,
My father, Jerry Siegel, co-created Superman as the “champion of the oppressed … sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” But sadly his dying wish, for his family to regain his rightful share of Superman, has become a cautionary tale for writers and artists everywhere.
My family’s David and Goliath struggle against Warner Bros, the media conglomerate, goes back to April 1997, when my mom and I exercised our clear right under the Copyright Act to achieve my dad’s dream of recovering his copyrights. In April 1999, my dad’s half of the original Superman rights reverted to us, entitling our family to a significant share of Superman profits, which Warner/DC Comics refused to pay. For over thirteen years they have fought us at every turn, in and out of court, aiming to make recovery of the money they owe us so impossibly difficult that we would give up and settle for peanuts.
We refused to be intimidated despite my elderly mom’s heart condition and my multiple sclerosis. In 2008 the U.S. District Court ruled that my mom and I had successfully recaptured my father’s Superman copyrights and were entitled to Superman profits since April 1999.
Angered and alarmed by this defeat, Warner Bros resorted to a despicable old trick: diverting attention from the legal merits of our case by personally attacking our long-time lawyer, Marc Toberoff. Through DC, the media giant filed a lawsuit against Mr. Toberoff, my family and the Estate of Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster, falsely claiming “unfair competition” and that Toberoff interfered with an out of court offer that Warner tried to push on my mom and me in early 2002 – an offer full of studio accounting traps that we refused to sign before we even knew Mr. Toberoff.
Warner Bros possesses documents stolen from my attorney’s office which mysteriously ended up on the desks of three top Warner executives. Warner claims it has no evidence whatsoever as to when these large packages arrived. According to Warner, the thief also included a cowardly anonymous letter that vilifies our attorney and mischaracterizes the privileged attorney-client communications enclosed. In a disgraceful violation of my privacy, Warner’s lawyers attached this nasty anonymous letter to a publicly filed complaint and leaked it to the media.
Warner Bros got big judicial boost today in the case about who really owns the rights to Superman. First, the Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit unanimously rejected an attempt by Marc Toberoff, the lawyer for the estates of Superman’s co-creators, to use attorney-client privilege to keep documents pertinent to the long-ongoing copyright case secret. Then, while noting it wasn’t a matter before the court in this instance, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain took the rare step of specifically noting the “ethical and professional concerns raised by Toberoff’s actions” in playing the role of both lawyer and business adviser for the estates of Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
Toberoff has wanted to deny the studio legal use of material that Warner Bros claims clearly shows there was a competing joint venture between the heirs and Toberoff’s Pacific Pictures to eventually produce a new Superman movie among other things. Toberoff had cited attorney-client privilege on documents that had been stolen from his office in 2006 by former associate David Michaels and given to Warner Bros. In 2010, in the midst of his battles with the studio, Toberoff granted a “selective waiver” of the confidentiality privilege to the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s investigation of Michaels’ theft. O’Scannlain, writing the 16-page opinion for the three-judge panel, said, “given that Congress has declined broadly to adopt a new privilege to protect disclosures of attorney-client privileged materials to the government, we will not do so here.”
Ruling on behalf of Warner Bros., a federal judge on Tuesday rejected copyright lawyer Marc Toberoff’s claims that his actions as lawyer for heirs of the co-creators of Superman were protected against legal interference. In so doing the judge allowed Warner Bros.’ lawsuit against Toberoff to move forward. The judge also granted Warner Bros access to a July 2003 letter from Laura Siegel to her late brother Michael. Warner Bros. outside counsel Daniel Petrocelli is seeking to undo Toberoff’s relationship with the heirs of Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster by accusing the attorney of interfering as a competing business owner in agreements the studio and DC had made with the heirs.
Petrocelli was hired to come up with a strategy to prevent the studio from possibly losing a portion of the copyright to Superman in 2013 as a court has previously ruled. Petrocelli filed the current lawsuit last May to put Toberoff in a position where he might have to resign as the attorney for the Siegels and Shusters. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Otis Wright found that the studio’s argument “makes sense.” He ruled that because Toberoff had established business arrangements through his own company Pacific Pictures with heirs of Siegel and Shuster, he was not protected under California’s anti-SLAAP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute that protects rights owners against legal intimidation. Wright rejected Toberoff’s anti-SLAPP argument, ruling that he was acting in his capacity as a businessman, not a lawyer, through Pacific Pictures — specifically concerning exploitation of Joe Shuster’s creations.
EXCLUSIVE: Intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff has a winning track record when he goes after Hollywood studios on behalf of rightsholders. But not today. I’ve just learned that he lost big in Federal Court for the Southern District Of New York after suing Disney/Marvel for the Jack Kirby Estate. The federal judge not only granted the studio motions for summary judgment but also denied the Toberoff/Kirby’s cross-motion for summary judgment. The ruling revolved around the fact that Kirby was a freelance writer and did work-for-hire and so didn’t retain the copyright. Well, you win some and you lose some. But all the Hollywood studios are chortling because they now see Toberoff as vulnerable and not invincible. “This is just the beginning,” Toberoff just told me, noting that, after the Kirby Estate exercised their termination rights under the Copyright Act, Marvel (backed by Disney) was in the middle of settlement negotiations in December 2009 and sued the Kirbys on January 8, 2010 in NY to benefit from that state’s more favorable work-for-hire case law. UPDATE: The
Walt Disney Companyissued this statement regarding the Marvel Worldwide Inc. v. Kirby ruling: “We are pleased that in this case, the judge has confirmed Marvel’s ownership rights.”
Specifically, the estate of comic book superhero legend Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk, The Silver Surfer and Thor, sent notices terminating copyright to publishers Marvel and Disney, as well as film studios that have made movies and TV shows based on characters he created or co-created, including Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. Normally these kinds of lawsuits are run of the mill for Hollywood. But not when they’re litigated by Toberoff, who is the bane of Big Media.
UPDATE: There’s been another development in the Superman copyright litigation case. Actually, this is a carnival sideshow to that case and a disgusting exercise by DC Comics and its big Hollywood studio Warner Bros to continue to trample the rights of the Superman rights-holders, the estates of co-creators Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster. When DC and WB couldn’t weasel out of paying the families of Siegel and Shuster what is rightfully owed and reverting copyright back to them, they decided to go after their archnemesis, Superman copyright lawyer Marc Toberoff, who’s been a longtime thorn in Warner Bros’ side because he represents showbiz rights-holders and wins their cases against the studio. The result was that, a year ago, Warner Bros and DC Comics decided to sue Toberoff alleging he had a role as a financial participant in the Superman rights fight with the studio and therefore a conflict of interest repping his clients. Today, a U.S. District Court judge denied an appeal of a magistrate’s ruling which held that “the defendants waived privilege on numerous attorney-client communications stolen from their counsel’s law firm by producing such documents to the United States Attorney’s Office investigating the theft pursuant to a Grand Jury subpoena and a confidentiality agreement.” Forget all the legal mumbo-jumbo, let’s examine what’s really at work here. And it’s that DC Comics and Warner Bros are basing their entire case against Toberoff on stolen documents from his office. That’s right: stolen documents. In my view the Time Warner subsidiaries should be ashamed of themselves.
Let me knock down yet another rumor. Intellectual property pit bull Marc Toberoff tells me he doesn’t represent the Don Adams estate and isn’t suing Warner Bros over Get Smart. Toberoff did take on Warner Brothers when the studio attempted to deny Buck …