Disney sues to keep its Avengers copyrights assembled


Disney-owned Marvel is suing relatives of Steve Ditko and other Marvel comics creators to retain control of classic characters, including Iron Man, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Black Widow.

The lawsuits, covered earlier today by The Hollywood Reporter, were filed in New York and California against the heirs of Steve Ditko, Don Rico, Don Heck, and Gene Colan, as well as Stan Lee’s brother and Marvel collaborator Lawrence Lieber. They ask courts to declare that Disney has sole ownership of comics like The Avengers, Iron Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Strange Tales, and Tales of Suspense — including the characters and story elements that have formed the basis for Disney’s lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As The Hollywood Reporter notes, the suits follow Lieber and others sending termination notices to reclaim part of the rights on many Marvel characters. They’re an attempt to head off litigation that might follow from those notices.

Termination notices are meant to let creators and their heirs share in publishers’ profits. But Disney’s attorneys argue that Marvel had sole creative control over the characters and comic books in question, saying it paid writers and artists on a work-for-hire basis that precluded any rights to the resulting books. “This case thus involves an invalid attempt, by means of termination notices ... to acquire certain rights to iconic Marvel comic book characters and stories,” says the suit against Lieber.

Artists and authors, as well as their families, have fought repeated legal battles for the rights to iconic comics characters. The efforts have had limited success. In 2014, Disney and the children of Marvel legend Jack Kirby settled a lawsuit that saw an appeals court rule in Disney’s favor, concluding that Kirby had worked on a for-hire basis. The same year, an appeals court affirmed DC parent company Warner Bros’ victory over the family of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster. And in Marvel cases specifically, the comics giant has cited its collaborative “Marvel Method” as an argument in its favor — saying it makes it difficult to assign ownership to a specific author or artist.


On the one hand: There is no way the estate of any comics creator is going to win a legal battle against the very company (and their small army of lawyers) responsible for so thoroughly warping copyright law in the first place. Even if they start to look like they’re getting close, the lawyers will back up whatever dump truck they need to get them to go away, and everything will stay the way it was. Again – look at what they did to copyright law just to keep their gloves on the rights to Mickey Mouse exclusively. Now look at what Marvel is worth to them. There’s no way they’re losing this, even IF there was a case (and there probably isn’t, unfortunately.

On the other hand: I would love if this somehow worked, and they lost the exclusive copyright, and shit fell into public domain after 25 years again, etc. etc. You all know the arguments and the precedents (not that they necessarily apply to THIS case, but speaking in a larger context and all…) I would love if that happened because it would prove that ultimately – it doesn’t REALLY matter if you hold the copyright or not, what matters is the work you do, and how well you do it.

The irony being that Disney more or less BECAME DISNEY because of public domain. And it didn’t matter that they didn’t hold exclusive copyright, because people came to see that even if anyone could make a Snow White, or a Cinderella – people preferred what DISNEY did with it.

The same thing would happen with Marvel if/when all those characters fall into public domain (as they should). Everyone would have the right to try their hand at Spidey and Cap and so on. But not everyone would have the means, the knowledge base, or the MONEY to make it work the way they could. And it would be amazing to see both opportunities for new creators to build on the legacies for the past, AND for the established creators to prove they got established on those properties for a very good reason.

shit fell into public domain after 25 years again, etc. etc.

I think you meant 75 years. I agree with you in general that things should fall into the public domain sooner than they currently do (25 years seems to short to me.) Mickey Mouse comes up again in a couple of years, at least the first incarnation of Mickey Mouse, so it will be interesting to see what happens. If Disney had not gotten the laws changed Batman and Superman would already be in the public domain. However, I’m not sure that I’m following you in how this case could somehow end up causing things to fall into the public domain sooner than they currently do (or maybe I’m reading your post wrong.)

Nah, you’re reading it correctly – I was just speaking about the larger dream of copyright law reverting to pre-Disney manipulations, or going back even farther (it originally used to be 28 years max. 14 years and then another 14 past that point if you wanted to extend it). I should have worded my post more clearly to delineate between how I want this case to work and then further, how I’d like copyright to change period.

Ironically, if it succeeded in the way you want it to(and I largely agree with the way you want it), that would also be a loss for the estates, since they would also lose control over their creations, and not be entitled to any royalties/etc.

"their creations"

Well, if these creators signed work-for-hire contracts, they are probably screwed. It’s a very established contractual device in Hollywood (and elsewhere) for assigning ownership of any IP. They have been around forever.

Now, if they didn’t, or if the agreement was oral, or if they were employees without a contract, or something else, then there might be something to fight about.

I had always heard that Ditko refused to sign the work for hire contracts, which is why he didn’t work for the Big Two for a long period of time. No idea if that is true or just a comics legend.But if true, one supposes that there could be some argument about ownership. Though, since none of the people involved are still alive, it would seem hard to find anyone to testify about what was said back then, so seems like a tough case to win.

Yeah, I imagine a number of these are on shakey contract ground. That said, the comics industry is rife with weird-ass contracts and lawsuits around them. So it also wouldn’t surprise me if at least one of these plaintiff’s actually wasn’t under a work-for-hire contract. But as another commenter said, if they come close to a verdict in favor of not-Disney, a dumptruck of money will be dumped at someone’s door to avoid creating any sort of precedent that could make it easier for others to exercise those same rights.

Quite frankly the legal proceedings that came before and during the MCU’s current reign is worth a legendary film series to detail. It’s varied and vast and this is just yet another chapter…

The Legend of Marvel Chi!

No lie, you could do a dozen "Big Short" style movies just around the comic’s industries major lawsuits.

Right’s holders will defend their IP. They have to, or they lose it. And the higher the stakes the more vigorous the defense.

Toys-R-Us was rather famous for suing any company, no matter how small, that used the XX-R-XX styling as their name, including little mom & pop companies. They had to.

You are conflating trademark and copyright. You can enforce copyright selectively. You generally don’t want to do so with trademark, because that risks your mark becoming generic, which is a reason to lose it.

This lawsuit is a bit of a special case in that the artists’ estates are saying THEY own the copyright, or a portion thereof. It’s not your standard copyright infringement action.

If a company is paying you on a work-for-hire basis to create content for them, that content belongs to the company. As long as Disney/Marvel can prove that is the case, they deserve to win this.

From what I understand about why all these cases continually come up, Marvel doesn’t have contracts for some of the original 1960s Marvel bullpen crew (like Ditko), but instead maintains that it was work for hire just because it was an understanding that it was, even though there is no contract or anything. They tried to get them to sign contracts later, but from what I understand, some like Ditko didn’t. So now there is a grey area, I guess. It seems like a tough case to win no matter what since almost none of the parties involved are still alive.

Interesting – thanks for the further context. Agree it is hard to see how the families could prove anything but work-for-hire so long after the fact.

Intellectual property rights should expire the moment the creator dies. Disney shouldn’t be able to hold them, nor should the family of the creators. They should be public domain.

So my hard work vanishes with me? All the sweat and tears just vanish just like that? So I should just work hard knowing this won’t take care of my family? My family can’t reap benefits from it? It should all go to you (Tanil and or Public) just like that?

Where do you work? I think you should give me some of your money pal, sooner or later…following that sh*t logic.

I agree with you for the most part – just because I die, doesn’t mean that everything I’ve done suddenly is now the property of the universe. On the other hand, there should be actual and absolute limits on how long IP can remain the property of the creator’s estate. 25 years seems about right, and yet there are way too many ways around it as we see with Disney.

I build my legacy for those whom I sire. Nothing new here. Get with the reality of life.

yes of course. If I am a supermarket cashier and I die, this is what would happen. You seem to want the State to not only give YOU handouts but your family too.

Devil’s advocate: an author creates a novel, but passes away the day before publication. His estate is no longer entitled to that work because the author passed away? It’s not really equivalent to being a supermarket cashier because that person is getting paid for work as they do it (pay periods aside), whereas the author is not paid for their work until some arbitrary date of sales beginning (at which point, they are likely doing no work on the sold good).

Really, copyright should not be tied to something as unpredictable as an individual human’s lifetime. Just make it X years; if the creator passes away Y years later, their estate controls the item for the remaining (X – Y) years. If the creator is still alive after X years expire, it’s public domain regardless.

Well I the cashier starts working and dies before receiving their salary what would happen? The family would receive the money of that month, maybe I guess?
In this case any money received pre-sales would be theirs. Granted I dont think intellectual monopoly privilege should exist at all or it should be severely limited. But yes it should be flat X years if it were the case.

Stop comparing a cashier and someone who has used world-class skill to create something both original and globally appealing.

Having personally done both, my cashier days are fine to go public domain. The work I’ve done that was unique, innovative and with global appeal – no, I want my family to hang on to the benefits of that.

That’s because one job can be done by anyone, the other is very rare.

Why not reward other people then? Why not reward women that do the vast majority of unpaid labour and care work? Also you seem admit that it is a State handout.

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