Friday, December 9, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Disney sues to keep complete control of key Marvel characters

The House of Mouse claims that since it now owns Marvel, and the artists' work was done at Marvel's "instance and expense," it owns the characters.

(CN) — Disney-owned Marvel filed federal lawsuits in New York and California on Friday seeking to invalidate copyright-termination notices brought by some of the creators of the brand’s most beloved and recognizable characters.

The superhero franchise received notices of termination from five clients of intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff. Toberoff’s clients include comic book writer and illustrator Lawrence D. Lieber, the younger brother of prolific Marvel Comics writer and editor Stan Lee. The other clients are the estates of Marvel contributors Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Don Rico and Gene Colan. The artists worked at Marvel throughout the mid-20th century and are credited with helping create characters like Iron Man, Spiderman, Thor, Ant Man, Black Widow, Captain Marvel and others.

Disney contends the termination notices must be thrown out because the artists did their work at Marvel’s behest.

“Marvel assigned Lieber stories to write, had the right to exercise creative control over Lieber’s contributions, and paid Lieber a per-page rate for his contributions,” Marvel says in its complaint against Lieber filed in the Southern District of New York. “As a result, any contributions Lieber made were at Marvel’s instance and expense, rendering his contributions work made for hire, to which the Copyright Act’s termination provisions do not apply.”

The Marvel universe has been a lucrative windfall for Disney, with billions flowing in from theatrical releases, streaming and broadcast television programs, theme parks and merchandise. The artists and their estates say copyright law entitles them to regain ownership after a certain amount of time has elapsed.

If Marvel loses its cases against the artists, it would retain some ownership. But the studio would be required to account for the artist’s specific contributions to a movie or product and compensate accordingly.

This is not the first case in which a Marvel artist’s heirs have attempted to sue the entertainment behemoth for rights to the characters.

The children of comic book artist Jack Kirby brought a similar lawsuit in 2010, also with Toberoff as attorney. In that case, a federal judge in New York granted summary judgment to Marvel and the Second Circuit affirmed, agreeing that Kirby’s contributions were “work-for-hire” and thus exempted. Toberoff appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, at which point Disney and Kirby reached a settlement.

Daniel Petrocelli, a lawyer from O’Melveny & Myers representing Disney and Marvel, said he was confident the suits filed Friday would end with the courts dismissing the artists’ termination notices, as they did with Kirby.

“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,” said Petrocelli in an emailed statement.

Citing Disney’s eventual settlement with Kirby, Toberoff said in an email that he successfully represented the artist’s family “exercising their rights under the Copyright Act,” touting the case’s “tremendous support from the artistic community.” He said the cases filed Friday present another opportunity to gain justice for creators.

“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 said. “At the time [of the settlement], I was asked whether I regretted not righting the legal injustice to creators — which I indeed did. I responded that there would be other such cases. Now, here we are.”

Follow Nate MacKay on Twitter

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...