Disney’s Marvel heads are taking action to ensure they’re MCU money-printing machine can continue unhindered by the heirs of the comics’ creators. Iconic comic book characters like The Avengers, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Black Widow, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Iron Man, and Thor, that have populated Disney’s worldwide blockbusters are embroiled in a tug-of-war that have both heirs and Disney filing suits.
Lawsuits have been filed against the heirs of some late comic book legends including Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan. The suits seek “declaratory relief that these blockbuster characters are ineligible for copyright termination as works made for hire.” If Marvel loses, Disney would have to share ownership of characters estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
Notices of termination began last month with Steve Ditko’s estate administrator filing for the termination for the use of Spider-Man which began in comic book form in 1962. Under the termination provisions of copyright law, “authors or their heirs can reclaim rights once granted to publishers after waiting a statutory set period of time.” According to the termination notice, Marvel would have to give up Ditko’s rights to its iconic character in June 2023.
The line of termination notices is getting longer. Larry Lieber (a Marvel writer, too) filed termination notices over his creations this past May along with the heirs to Don Rico, creator of Black Widow. The group is being represented by Marc Toberoff, experienced in the world of comic book law suits and who represented Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in a termination attempt against DC for which he lost. Dan Petrocelli at O’Melveny argued for DC and won asserting ‘tortious interference of its rights.’
Well, Disney knew exactly who to turn to, as Dan Petrocelli will be representing them to retain the rights of many characters in the MCU. The ‘Marvel Method’ was used to argue the DC case, Put plainly, the artists were guns for hire not owners of their creations. “Marvel had the right to exercise creative control over Lieber’s contributions and paid Lieber a per-page rate for his work.” Petrocelli is filing several lawsuits in New York and California against Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Patrick Ditko, Don Rico and Keith Dettwiler. The cases will focus on who ‘created’ the famous comic book characters and who should be deemed the statutory author.
This is in Toberoff’s wheelhouse, as nearly a decade back, he represented the estate of comic book legend Jack Kirby over whether he could terminate a copyright grant on Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor. They lost in the lower courts in August 2013, on the basis that he was a freelancer and had contributed his materials as a work made for hire.
The Kirby case caught the attention of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it looked as though the case would be moved up to the highest court. Before the justices had time to decide whether to hear the case, Marvel settled out of court. Marvel’s suit calls the latest controversy “virtually identical circumstances” to Kirby’s.
If the ‘guns for hire, freelancers, or creators, depending on how you see it) plaintiffs win, Disney expects to retain some share of the rights to the characters. The studio would then share profits with the others. It should be added that, the termination provisions of copyright law only apply in the United States, which would allow Disney to control and profit from any foreign endeavors. This news come from The Hollywood Reporter.