(CN) – Following an October ruling by the 9th Circuit that comic book legend Stan Lee had never assigned the rights to even minor characters to upstart Stan Lee Media, the 10th Circuit ruled Tuesday that the Walt Disney Company is the legal owner of the Marvel comic universe – not Stan Lee Media.
Stan Lee Media filed a flurry of lawsuits against Lee and Marvel in several states’ federal courts, to reclaim assets it said were stripped during its 2001 bankruptcy.
A federal judge in New York tossed Stan Lee Media’s action there in 2011, for being well outside the statute of limitations. The company’s actions in a Denver federal court against the Walt Disney Company – which bought Marvel in 2009 – failed as well, since it had already litigated the same key issues in the New York court and lost.
In 2012, a federal judge in Los Angeles tossed yet another case, noting the previous dismissals in New York and Denver. On appeal, Stan Lee Media’s attorneys argued that Lee had never listed the characters as assets when he chaired the company, to cover up the fact that he had already assigned the rights to Marvel.
The characters include Spiderman, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four.
In a per curiam memorandum issued this past October, a panel for the 9th Circuit affirmed the L.A. dismissal, holding that Stan Lee Media failed to show that Lee had ever assigned the rights to his characters to the company at all.
Following the other courts’ lead, a panel for the 10th Circuit affirmed the Denver federal court’s decision that Disney is the legal owner of Marvel properties – and that Stan Lee Media is barred from relitigating the issue under the legal principle of collateral estoppel.
“The 9th Circuit’s dismissal for failure to plead a viable cause of action is a decision on the merits under that circuit’s (and every other circuit’s) law,” Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote for the three-judge panel. “Furthermore, the issues decided within that decision, even though it was not submitted for publication, are clearly collaterally binding.”
Stan Lee Media had claimed it was not given a fair shot at proving its ownership of the Marvel characters, and therefore should not be barred from another shot at Disney. But the 10th Circuit panel noted that the company had made its case before a federal judge and second time on appeal to the 9th Circuit – “a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue by any standard,” Tymkovich wrote.
He noted that even if Stan Lee Media had been allowed to amend its California complaint, the 9th Circuit unequivocally dismissed the case because it found the company’s ownership claims “simply implausible.”
As a result, its action in Colorado against Disney – including the single copyright infringement claim over Marvel titles released in the last three years – fails as well, the court concluded.
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