I sure hope Disney has Jennifer Walters or Matt Murdock on speed-dial because they’re going to need to lawyer up.
Reports are coming in that Marvel is suing to retain total control of Avengers characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Falcon, Thor, and others. The complaints come after heirs of select Marvel creators (Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan) filed dozens of termination notices with the U.S. Copyright Office, hoping to end Marvel’s licenses to the characters.
Marvel’s current argument is that the characters were created under “work for hire” conditions and that heirs have no rightful claim to the copyrights. In trying to cut the head off the hydra before it has a chance to bite, Marvel has pointed toward a case involving Jack Kirby, the legend who created characters like the X-Men, Thor, and Iron Man. In that case, Kirby’s heirs tried to reclaim the copyrights to his creations, but federal courts ruled in Marvel’s favor, stating that the characters fell under work-for-hire arrangements.
Marvel’s lawyers, led by Daniel Petrocelli, say the newly-presented cases are “virtually identical circumstances.”
Per Variety, Marvel filed suit against Lawrence D. Lieber, Patrick S. Ditko, Michelle Hart-Rico and Buz Donato Rico III, Keith A. Dettwiler, and Nanci Solo and Erik Colan.
Ditko is the brother of Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Solo and Colan are the children of Gene Colan, co-creator of the Falcon and Captain Marvel. Dettwiler is the nephew of Don Heck, co-creator of Iron Man and Black Widow. Hart-Rico and Rico III are the heirs of Don Rico, who also co-created Black Widow. Lieber is the brother of Stan Lee, but filed termination notices on his own behalf for work he did for Marvel in 1962-64.
Adding a wrinkle to this whole ordeal is the Copyright Act of 1976, which states that heirs are permitted, in certain circumstances, to terminate the grant of a license or transfer to a copyrighted work — such as a comic book — via a properly executed notification.
What does this all mean for Disney and Marvel? Well, if the plaintiffs win, Disney hopes to maintain co-ownership of the characters in question. The studio would also have to share profits with those making the complaints. This means millions, if not billions of dollars issued to the heirs of the creators. It’s also worth noting that the copyright law only holds water in the United States. In other words, anything established outside of the territory would be fair game.
As your attorney, I advise you to grab a bucket of popcorn and relax because this could take a while to sort out.