Broad Legal Lessons From the Superman Litigation

On February 10, 2016, the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court's decision in lengthy litigation related to a 1938 transfer of the Superman copyright from his creator to DC Comics (Larson v. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.). This brief comment in a simplified manner lists some broadly applicable legal points illustrated by this litigation. Always consult an experienced attorney in all specific intellectual property and contract situations.

1. A letter may create a binding contract. A lengthy letter reviewed in this litigation stated that the heirs have "accepted DC Comics offer ...."

2. Oral statements related to a letter may additionally affirm that it constituted a contract.

3. A letter need not contain every provision to create a binding contract.

4. The letter need not be signed by all parties but only the party against whom enforcement is sought.

5. A legal representative or agent signing the letter binds the principal that she or he represents.

6. A broadly stated letter or agreement indicating that it supersedes all prior claims and agreements may be binding even though it does not specifically name a particular claim or agreement. Beware of broad language.

7. Typically, all legal arguments must be presented at the trial level and not for the first time on appeal.

8. If intellectual property is created as a "work for hire," transferring intellectual property for a payment or other consideration, the original understanding should contain this phrase.

9. There is much potentially valuable intellectual property that may not necessarily appear to be so when initially created. A creator should always carefully retain her or his rights. Language creating a limited, non-transferable and limited duration license allows a payment to the creator without a transfer of intellectual property.

10. Determining the future value of contemporary intellectual property is quite difficult. Values go up and down. Even skilled professionals may be mistaken. Contracts are usually not invalided by the courts due to a mistake in value.

This comment provides an incomplete educational overview of a complex topic and is not intended to provide legal advice. Always consult an experienced attorney and intellectual property professionals in specific situations.