On the surface, the latest court ruling in the Siegel Superman lawsuit is relatively straightforward: the court examines whether Warner Bros. paid fair market value for the Superman movie & Smallville licenses, and the ruling finds in favor of the defendants. However, there’s much more to this opinion than who won.
One clear theme that emerges in this opinion is the judge’s dissatisfaction with how the plaintiffs have been arguing their case. For example, the judge repeatedly asserts that the plaintiffs did not provide pertinent comparative data and failed to address what was arguably the central issue in this phase–namely, the value not of the Superman property as a whole, but of the rights in Action Comics #1 shared by Warner Bros. and the Siegels. The judge also makes a striking argument that DC unreasonably failed to include a standard clause for reversion of rights should Warner Bros. fail to make another Superman movie, only to conclude that he lacked a basis for ruling against Warner Bros. on this issue as well.
All told, the judge makes a point of stating in regard to the Superman movie rights that the reason he found in favor of the defendants was “insufficient evidence”–in other words, it’s not so much a determination that the licenses actually reflected fair market value as the lack of needed evidence for finding otherwise.
Whether the judge is correct on this point I’ll leave to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals–what I find most significant is the extent to which he is arguably signaling that the Siegels may not want to count on the present court to provide a significant amount over what they might get in a settlement. The judge’s evident frustration sends a message that is all too common in situations such as this–namely, that while the plaintiffs may have won a moral victory, that might not necessarily translate into significant cash, at least not without clear documentation and convincing arguments. In this regard, it’s worth noting that the judge calls attention to how different the original Superman was in contrast to his current incarnation–it will be most interesting to see how he assesses the value of the Siegels’ copyright interest in relation to current material.
In addition, there are a number of other reasons why this opinion is well worth reading:
As noted earlier, the next phase of the case involves apportionment of the value of the relevant Superman material between the Siegels and Warner Bros. That is ultimately the real prize, and I’ll post the details on the schedule as soon as they’re available.