Disney-owned Marvel has found itself locked in yet another legal battle, and it’s not the kind that Daredevil can solve in a pinch. According to The Hollywood Reporter (THR), the company is suing the relatives of several comic book geniuses to retain full control over classic Avengers characters, including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Falcon, Thor, and others.
The lawsuits were filed in New York and California against the the heirs of Steve Ditko (artist and co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange), Don Rico (co-creator of Black Widow), Don Heck (co-creator of Iron-Man, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), and Gene Colan (co-creator of Falcon, Captain Marvel, and Blade), as well as Stan Lee’s brother and Marvel collaborator Lawrence Lieber.
Centered around the legal issue of copyright termination, the suits follow Lieber and the others sending notices earlier this summer to reclaim part of the rights on select characters. Should Marvel lose, the House of Mouse would have to give up sole ownership of characters worth billions, and share any profits involved. With the law only applicable to the States, however, controlling and profiting from foreign exploitation is still possible.
In response, the company’s attorneys argue that the artists’ creations were made “for hire” for Marvel, so the latter has the sole creative control over the characters and comic books in question. The complaints also added that the parties won’t be able to reclaim rights under the Copyright Act, which dictates that an artist can terminate a copyright assignment after 35 years by giving an advance notice of at least two years.
This isn’t the first time that the comic book industry has faced this type of litigation. Back in 2014, a lawsuit involving Disney and the children of Marvel legend Jack Kirby – whose credit includes the creator of Captain America, and co-creator of the Fantastic Four, Thor, X-Men, and Hulk – was ruled in the publisher’s favour, with the conclusion that Kirby had worked on a for-hire basis. The same year, DC parent company Warner Bros won a decade-long battle against the family of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, and managed to regain its rights to the iconic superhero.
Marvel is facing other termination notices as well, but it intends to cite the “Marvel Method” as its main argument, where the loose collaborative working atmosphere that facilitates initial idea discussions would make it difficult to assign ownership to a specific party.
How this case will play out has yet to be determined, although it appears that the legal odds have always been in favour of the publisher. Illustrators and writers, alongside their families, have long fought legal battles for the rights to their characters, and these efforts have had limited success over the years. Perhaps the time has come to shake up the status quo? We’ll have to wait and see.