Disney sues to keep full rights to Marvel characters including Spider-Man, Black Widow, and more
Disney is headed to court in an attempt to retain full control over some of Marvel's most iconic characters. The studio filed a slew of lawsuits on Friday against the heirs of several writers and artists who are seeking to reclaim the copyrights to such characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Black Widow, and Captain Marvel.
The suits, filed on behalf of Marvel Entertainment (which Disney owns), come in response to copyright-termination notices filed earlier this year, seeking to return the rights to Marvel's characters to the authors who created them. (Under U.S. copyright law, authors or their heirs may reclaim rights from publishers after a certain number of years.) If successful, these notices would allow Marvel to continue using the characters, but require the studio to share ownership and profits with the creators' heirs.
Among those seeking termination are the estates of Marvel Comics legends Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange), Don Heck (co-creator of Iron Man, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), Don Rico (co-creator of Black Widow), and Gene Colan (co-creator of Falcon, Captain Marvel, and Blade), as well as Larry Lieber, co-creator of Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man and the younger brother of Stan Lee. All are being represented by intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff, who previously represented the heirs of Marvel comic book artist Jack Kirby and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in similar cases.
Disney's lawsuits, filed by L.A. attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli and obtained by EW, argue that the characters in question were created as "work made for hire, to which the Copyright Act's termination provisions do not apply," according to the complaints.
"Marvel assigned Steve Ditko stories to illustrate, had the right to exercise creative control over his contributions, and paid him a per-page rate for his contributions," reads the complaint against Ditko's estate, in language echoed in the other lawsuits. "As a result, any contributions Steve Ditko made were at Marvel's instance and expense."
Petrocelli (who is also representing Disney in Scarlett Johansson's lawsuit against the studio) declined EW's request for further comment, but told The New York Times, "Since these were works made for hire and thus owned by Marvel, we filed these lawsuits to confirm that the termination notices are invalid and of no legal effect."
In a statement provided to EW, Toberoff fired back, saying, "At the core of these cases is an anachronistic and highly criticized interpretation of 'work-made-for-hire' under the 1909 Copyright Act that needs to be rectified."
Toberoff argues that "for the first six decades" of the Copyright Act, courts interpreted it as applying only to "traditional full-time employees," which Marvel's writers and artists were not. "These guys were all freelancers or independent contractors, working piecemeal for car fare out of their basements, selling by the page those pages a publisher liked," the lawyer said in an email. "So at the time all these characters were created their material was definately [sic] not [work-for-hire] under the law."
As noted, Toberoff has represented creators in similar cases in the past. He spent years battling DC Comics and Warner Bros. for the rights to Superman on behalf of the Man of Steel's creators, with Warner ultimately winning in two separate court rulings. Toberoff's case against Marvel on behalf of Kirby, meanwhile, nearly reached the Supreme Court before settling in 2014.
"At the time, I was asked whether I regretted not righting the legal injustice to creators — which I indeed did," Toberoff said in his statement. "I responded that there would be other such cases. Now here we are."