Inflatable Spider-Man as advertisement for the Marvel film "Far From Home" in front of the Chinese Theater in Hollywood (2019)
Photo: Chris Delmas / AFP
The clock is ticking for Marvel, one of the largest and most successful US comic publishers: in 2023, numerous co-authors of some of the most popular superhero characters could claim their copyrights back. The result would be that Marvel, in whose comic books the characters have been published since the 1960s, would partially control icons such as Spider-Man, Iron Man or Dr. Strange could lose. In view of the billions in sales that Disney and Marvel has recently made with the movie adaptations of the "Avengers" series, it is primarily a matter of not having to share future profits.
Marvel hurriedly sued comic artist Larry Lieber and the estate administrations of cartoonists Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Gene Colan and Don Rico on Friday and applied for an injunction stating that the artists should retain the copyrights to the characters they helped create, including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Widow and Thor cannot cancel.
Behind this is a controversy that has been simmering for decades about the so-called Marvel method: In the 1960s, many comic characters and stories were created in a relaxed atmosphere in the "Bullpen", the Marvel editorial office in New York, where idea generators and plot authors such as Marvel Boss Stan Lee and draftsmen like Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby often worked together to come up with characters like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four - all part of the great Marvel family of heroes. But the time of unity is long gone, also because Marvel had not adequately rewarded illustrators and authors in the past or did not share blockbuster sales for their creations.
The works of the artists were commissioned works for Marvel, the publisher now claims, Marvel owns them forever, the artists cannot reclaim the rights to them under copyright law, Marvel argues according to reports in the US media in the lawsuits.
The estate administrations of Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Dr. Strange), Don Heck (Iron Man, Hawkeye), Gene Colan (Falcon, Blade, Captain Marvel) and Don Rico (Black Widow) filed several lawsuits this summer, in which they claimed to terminate the exploitation rights granted to Marvel and its parent company Disney to the comics they wrote.
Marvel, in turn, is calling on the courts involved in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Los Angeles to declare these terminations invalid.
A lawyer with experience
The artists' attorney, Marc Toberoff, said the Marvel lawsuit was based on an "anachronistic and often criticized interpretation of agency work," based on an outdated copyright law of 1909 that needs rectification, according to Reuters news agency.
Toberoff is no stranger to the protracted battle over comic copyrights.
He once represented the Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in a similar dismissal case against the Marvel competitor DC Comics, but was ultimately defeated.
He later also represented Stan Lee's longtime creative partner at Marvel, Jack Kirby, in a dispute over the copyrights of heroes like Fantastic Four and the Hulk.
The case was initially settled in 2014 when the next instance threatened to go to the US Supreme Court.
Marvel attorney Dan Petrocelli said in his statement: "Since this is commissioned work that belongs to Marvel, we filed these lawsuits to confirm that the terminations are invalid and have no legal effect." However, artists terminate a copyright assignment after 35 years by giving notice of at least two years' notice.
According to Marvel's argument, this does not apply to works that were commissioned.
Friday's complaints stated that Marvel hired the artists to write and illustrate stories, that the publisher had creative control over them at all times, and that it paid the illustrators and writers per page.
After the ultimately legally unsatisfactory end of the Kirby trial, artist lawyer Toberoff was asked whether he regretted not having helped the creators legally, "which I certainly did."
At the time he replied “that there would be more such cases.
And now we are here, ”says Toberoff.
Many of the comic book heroes featured in the current lawsuits are playing major roles in the upcoming phase of Marvel motion pictures and series, such as Ditko's Spider-Man and the magician Dr.
Strange coming up soon and the archer Hawkeye in his own series on Disney +.