The lawyer that comic companies fear

Marc Toberoff, BA’77, is one of North America’s most prominent intellectual property lawyers — and to DC Comics, he’s scarier than the Joker and Lex Luthor combined.

by Gary Francoeur

Intellectual property expert Mark Toberoff (Photo: J. Emilio Flores/New York Times/Redux)

Marc Toberoff, BA’77, isn’t faster than a speeding bullet. He’s not more powerful than a locomotive. And he probably can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. But to the creators behind some of the world’s most recognizable intellectual properties, Toberoff is as much of a man of steel as Superman himself.

As one of North America’s most influential intellectual property lawyers, Toberoff has made a career of taking on deep-pocketed media conglomerates to win back copyrights for creative talents and their heirs. Though his critics have accused him of being an ambulance chaser, Toberoff dismisses the accusation, explaining that he firmly believes in fighting for the credit – and cash – that these families deserve.

“I like to stand up for something I believe in,” Toberoff says. “There is a deep division that exists between creative talents and corporate interests, which often results in creative talents being taken advantage of. You need to pick which side of the fence you want to be on.”

In what is probably his most famous case, Toberoff is representing the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in their lengthy legal battle with DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment. The families of Siegel and Shuster, who originally sold the crime-fighting character’s rights to DC Comics for a mere $130 in 1938, have exercised a provision in the U.S. copyright law that gives creators or their heirs a five-year window to reclaim rights to their works 56 years after the copyright was issued.

This clause, Toberoff claims, entitles the Siegel and Shuster families to a portion of all Superman-related profits earned since the copyright termination took effect as well as any future profits. “When Siegel and Shuster initially tried to get back the rights to their character, they were blacklisted and lived the rest of their lives in poverty,” Toberoff says. “That is what motivates me to do something to remedy this situation.” Warner Bros. is fighting back – it has launched a lawsuit against Toberoff claiming that he interfered in negotiations that were already underway between the company and the Siegel and Shuster families, a charge that Toberoff vigorously denies.

Toberoff has already secured victories or settlements for a host of other intellectual properties, including Lassie, Get Smart, The Dukes of Hazzard, Wild Wild West and Smallville. He failed in his attempt on behalf of the estate of comic-book legend Jack Kirby to win back the rights of some of the wildly popular Marvel Entertainment characters that Kirby co-created, such as the X-Men, Captain America, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. The case marked a rare loss for the attorney, who has since appealed the decision.

Toberoff’s success as a courtroom crusader has earned him plenty of attention. Forbes magazine has listed him as one of the “seven most powerful people in Hollywood”; Variety has called him the “the legal Man of Steel” and “a superhero to rights holders”; and he’s been included in The Hollywood Reporter “Power Lawyer” list for the last four years.

But Toberoff’s talents aren’t just limited to the courtroom. He’s also produced a host of Hollywood movies, including Piranha 3D, a gory underwater extravaganza that has become an instant cult classic among aficionados of over-the-top filmmaking.

He has certainly come a long way since his days as a McGill undergraduate, when he aspired to become a filmmaker. “I never thought of myself as becoming a lawyer,” he says, “but it turned out to be a natural fit.”

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