The House of Mouse has run into another hiccup when it comes to their popular collection of Marvel superheroes. According to THR, Disney’s Marvel unit is suing to hold onto full control of Avengers characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Falcon, Thor, and others.
The complaints, which The Hollywood Reporter has obtained, come against the heirs of some late comic book geniuses including Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan. The suits seek declaratory relief that these blockbuster characters are ineligible for copyright termination as works made for hire. If Marvel loses, Disney would have to share ownership of characters worth billions. And honestly, maybe they should. These characters came from the creators not Marvel. Why shouldn’t their families be taken care of from the success of the properties?
Last month, the administrator of Ditko’s estate filed a notice of termination on Spider Man, which first appeared in comic book form in 1962. Under the termination provisions of copyright law, authors or their heirs can reclaim rights once granted to publishers after waiting a statutory set period of time. According to the termination notice, Marvel would have to give up Ditko’s rights to its iconic character in June 2023.
Marvel is facing other termination notices. For example, Larry Lieber (who worked at Marvel as a writer too) filed termination notices over creations this past May.
The heirs of the comic book creators (including Black Widow creator Don Rico) are being represented by Marc Toberoff, who once famously represented Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in an unsuccessful termination attempt against DC.
DC saved off termination by counterclaiming against Toberoff and asserting tortious interference of its rights. The publisher was represented by Dan Petrocelli at O’Melveny, who just so happens to be representing Disney now in its efforts to keep rights to various Avengers characters.
Petrocelli is filing several lawsuits in New York and California against Lieber, Don Heck, Patrick Ditko, Don Rico and Keith Dettwiler. The cases will focus on the creation of famous comic book characters and who should be deemed the statutory author.
The litigation figures to focus on the “Marvel Method,” a loose collaborative working atmosphere where initial ideas were briefly discussed with artists responsible for taking care of the details. The Marvel Method has been the subject of prior litigation such as a dispute a decade back over “Ghost Rider.”
And it will again. For example, one of the complaints filed today (read here) asserts “Marvel had the right to exercise creative control over Lieber’s contributions and paid Lieber a per-page rate for his work.”
If the plaintiffs win, Disney expects to at least hold onto at least a share of character rights as co-owners. The studio would have to share profits with the others. Additionally, the termination provisions of copyright law only apply in the United States, allowing Disney to continue to control and profit from foreign exploitation.
Maybe Disney can just give the families of the creators free passes to all their parks for life?