Warner Brothers Retains Superman, Wins Anti-SLAPP Appeal - U.S. Ninth Circuit
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Warner Brothers Retains Superman, Wins Anti-SLAPP Appeal

In the relative time frame of appellate litigation, this decision came faster than a speeding bullet.

Two months after hearing oral arguments regarding rights to the Man of Steel, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Warner Brothers and DC Comics.

Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster jointly created Superman in the mid-1930s. In 1938, Siegel and Shuster conveyed exclusive rights in Superman to DC Comics in exchange for a flat fee. For over 60 years, however, Superman has generated bitter financial disputes and frequent litigation. Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs have been contesting DC's ownership of various aspects of the Superman copyrights on and off since the 1940s.

This week, mere months before Warner Brothers studios releases its Superman summer blockbuster, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the studio has a valid deal to make new Superman movies, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The more unusual dispute in this case involved an anti-SLAPP suit, The Hollywood Reporter explains. Warner Brothers accused Marc Toberoff, an attorney representing Siegel and Shuster's estates, of tortious interference. The studio claimed that Toberoff interfered with a deal it made with Siegel's widow in 2001, causing the Siegels to walk away from negotiations. Toberoff responded with a challenge based on the anti-SLAPP statute.

In California, a lawsuit brought for the purpose of chilling participation in matters of public significance through litigation is known as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). California Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.16 permits a special motion to strike in any SLAPP suit and freezes discovery. The statute is designed to prevent SLAPPs by disposing of them cheaply and early, and by permitting the prevailing movant to collect attorney's fees and costs.

The statute requires a trial court to undertake a two-step process in determining whether to grant a SLAPP motion. First, the court decides whether the defendant has made a threshold prima facie showing that the defendant's acts were taken in furtherance of her constitutional rights of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue. If the court finds the defendant has made the requisite showing, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to establish a "probability" of prevailing on the claim by making a prima facie showing of facts that would, if proved, support a judgment in the plaintiff's favor.

On Thursday, the Ninth Circuit dealt Toberoff a double whammy, finding that Warner Brothers did in fact have an enforceable agreement regarding the Superman rights with Laura Siegel Larson, and that the district court properly denied the anti-SLAPP motion.

Between Superman litigation and Spiderman appeals, the Ninth Circuit is certainly beefing up on its comic book knowledge. With a little luck -- or more acrimony -- maybe we'll see the Super Friends reconvene in court.

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