The families of iconic Marvel comic book writers and artists Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Gene Colan, and Don Rico have filed termination of copyright notices on the superheroes they helped create. Marvel—which Disney has owned since 2009—unsurprisingly, disagrees and has filed lawsuits against all five to keep the characters in the Marvel stable and making the company billions.
The Hollywood Reporter broke the news. Without trying to get into too much legalese, creators can file termination of copyright notices to reclaim rights to their work after a set amount of time, with a minimum of 35 years. Marvel’s suits argue that the characters are ineligible for copyright termination because they were made as “work-for-hire”—as in Marvel paid people to create characters for the company, meaning the company owns them outright. According to the report, if the creators’ heirs notices were accepted, Marvel would lose rights to characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Falcon, Ant-Man, and more. One caveat is this only matters in the United States. According to THR, even if Marvel loses, Disney can continue making money off the characters everywhere else. If the heirs win, Disney would still share ownership.
Since Marvel has pro-actively sued to keep the copyrights to these characters, I suppose the creators’ claims have some validity to them, but as a layman, the case looks hopeless to me. Not only does the Walt Disney Company have the infinite cash reserves to keep the rights tied up with them for years, but there have been previous cases where Marvel creators have claimed ownership and had to settle. Additionally, the lawyer representing the heirs is Marc Toberoff, who also represented the families of Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel when they tried to terminate DC Comics’ rights to the Man of Steel. DC was successfully represented by Dan Petrocelli—and he’s the one who just filed the lawsuits for Marvel.
More likely, the case will ultimately be about paying people some kind of fair compensation for turning Marvel into a billion-dollar company, which Disney has no desire to do (remember, Disney’s reportedly been paying creators a mere $5,000 for work it’s made those billions on). This is unfair, immoral, and purely greedy; the company has more than enough money to make all of these creators rich without coming close to losing a profit. In the best-case scenario, Disney/Marvel will give these folks as little as possible to make these legal annoyances go away early. It won’t be nearly as much as the company could and should give them, but at least it’ll be something.
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