Copyright Wars of the Superheroes
Last Update June 13, 2023
News stories about the battle over ownership of the lucrative comic book "intellectual properties" of the 21st century.
Legal fight between Marvel and Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Gene Colan comes to an end – MSN Hollywood Reporter – June 12, 2023
Back in 2021, Marvel filed a series of lawsuits in response to copyright termination notices from Larry Lieber and the estates of Gene Colan, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and Don Rico.
The termination notices were about work that appeared in these Marvel titles: Amazing Fantasy, The Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Iron Man, Journey Into Mystery, Marvel Super-Heroes, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and Tomb of Dracula and meant reversion ownership claims were being made over characters like Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch.
According to the termination notice sent by Marc Toberoff on behalf of estate administrator Patrick Ditko, the fate of Amazing Fantasy (including the character’s 1962 debut in “Spider-Man!”) and Strange Tales (including the character’s first appearance in 1963’s “Doctor Strange Master of Black Magic!”) is still to be determined.
Milton Bradley "work for hire" case and the Supreme Court
Case could have big impact on Comic Book "work for hire" cases involving slate of Marvel properties
If the Supreme Court takes up the case, it will undoubtedly impact Marvel superheroes too because Disney’s primary argument to resist copyright termination is that freelanced contributions like Dr. Strange, Black Widow and Loki were once done at Marvel’s instance and expense. It matters not, as the studio sees it, that Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Don Heck and others made creative choices and often did so with financial risk, getting paid only upon acceptance. Disney feels confident in its legal position thanks to some court success a decade ago in the Jack Kirby copyright termination fight — but that confidence gets a little shaky with respect to the Supreme Court. A decade ago, when Kirby’s heirs filed a very similar petition as Markham’s to the high court, Disney forked over tens of millions of dollars to settle the case rather than risk a reversal.
On Dec. 15, Larry Lieber (Stan Lee’s brother and a comic artist too) plus the estates of Ditko, Colan, Heck and Don Rico filed an amicus brief in support of Markham (read here). That’s not surprising, given how justices playing the Game of Life could end up conferring them an enormous advantage in their own cases.
December 20, 2021: Story at Hollywood Reporter
Related: Disney vs the Jack Kirby Estate
Related: The Superman Copyright Legal Case
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Five famous legal battles over comic book copyrights
Siegel and Shuster vs. DC Comics (Superman): Perhaps one of the most infamous copyright disputes in comic book history is the battle between the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and DC Comics. After selling the rights to Superman to DC for just $130 in 1938, the creators later attempted to reclaim the rights to their creation. In a series of lawsuits spanning decades, the courts initially ruled in favor of DC. However, copyright law changes eventually allowed the Siegel family to regain some of the copyright in 2008. The dispute has been further complicated by international copyright law, and is still not fully resolved.
Jack Kirby vs. Marvel Comics: Jack Kirby, co-creator of many of Marvel's most famous characters including The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, and The Avengers, had a long-standing dispute with Marvel over the rights to these characters. Kirby's heirs attempted to reclaim copyrights to his creations in 2009, but the court ruled in favor of Marvel in 2011, stating the characters were created under "work for hire" terms. The case was appealed and eventually settled out of court in 2014, just days before a scheduled Supreme Court conference on the matter.
Neil Gaiman vs. Todd McFarlane (Spawn): Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane, co-creators of the character Angela in the Spawn series, had a legal dispute over the rights to the character. The court ruled in 2002 that Gaiman was co-owner of the character, as well as two other Spawn characters, Medieval Spawn and Cogliostro.
Bill Finger vs. DC Comics (Batman): Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman, was initially given no public credit for his role in the creation of the character. For many years, Batman was solely credited to Bob Kane. Finger's contributions were publicly acknowledged by DC Comics in 2015, more than 40 years after his death. While not a legal dispute, it was a long-running controversy that involved issues of attribution and the recognition of Finger's creative contributions.
Marv Wolfman vs. Marvel Comics (Blade, Nova): In the early 1990s, Marv Wolfman had a legal battle with Marvel Comics over the ownership of characters he created while working for them, including Blade and Nova. Wolfman claimed that he created the characters independently and then brought them to Marvel, while Marvel claimed they were created under a "work-for-hire" agreement. The court ruled in favor of Marvel.
These cases illustrate the ongoing tensions in the comic book industry between creators and the companies that publish their work, particularly around issues of "work for hire" and the rights to characters and stories created under such agreements.
Original page May 16, 2021 | updated September 2021