Walt Disney Co. is taking legal action against former Marvel comics writers and drawers who attempt to claim rights to characters and stories they worked on decades ago, including Iron Man, Spider-Man and Daredevil.
Disney-owned Marvel sued several former Marvel comic book artists Friday for invalidating the copyright notices they had issued against the entertainment giant. Marvel filed several lawsuits in federal courts in New York and California.
All but one artist who died worked for Marvel in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Their representatives delivered their notices at the beginning of the year. Artists include Lawrence D. Lieber, 89, a writer hired by Marvel in 1958 who wrote stories about Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man.
Dear is the younger brother of the late Stan Lee, whose work with Marvel formed the basis of much of the publisher’s success and who has long been one of the publisher’s most recognizable faces. Lee died in 2018.
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Better to be represented by entertainment industry attorney Marc Toberoff, who also works with the estates of artists Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Don Rico and Gene Colan on similar claims about Marvel character rights.
Marvel, which filed its lawsuits under the name Marvel Characters Inc., said in court documents that because they toiled as a “worker,” Lieber and the others have no legal ownership rights to the characters they worked on. “[A]All contributions made by Lieber were made at the instigation and expense of Marvel, making his contributions rentable, which are not subject to the termination provisions of copyright law, ”Marvel said in one of his complaints.
Dan Petrocelli, the lawyer representing Marvel on the case, reiterated the company’s reasoning in a statement emailed.
“Because it was rental work and was owned by Marvel, we filed these lawsuits to confirm that the notice of termination was invalid and without legal effect,” said Petrocelli.
Based in Burbank, Disney is known for protecting its intellectual property, which is the cornerstone of its business strategy. The studio has created a remarkably successful series of films based on the comic strip franchise, most recently “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. The characters are the springboard for merchandising, theme park attractions and a whole category of content on the Disney + streaming service, where the studio has produced shows such as Loki and WandaVision.
But even if the artists’ claims were successful, they would not prevent Disney from exploiting their property in Marvel characters through movies or other parts of its business, said people familiar with the case who were not empowered to comment. Instead, Marvel and Disney might have to compensate the artists for using the characters.
The disputes reflect a closely watched previous case in which Toberoff represented the heirs of Jack Kirby, the co-creator of many of Marvel’s most famous heroes, in their battle for comic book character rights.
Four children of Kirby, best known for his work on the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor and Hulk, served dozens of terminations to Marvel, Disney, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures in 2009, when Disney acquired Marvel for $ 4 billion. Marvel then sued.
The US Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that Kirby’s contributions were work for employment and that his family could not claim ownership of the characters. Toberoff appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Kirby heirs reached an agreement with Marvel in 2014 before the case had a chance to get there.
Toberoff in a statement contradicted both Disney’s current reasoning and the lower court’s decision in the Kirby case, in which he said, “Marvel similarly sued Kirby’s family for exercising their rights under copyright law.”
“Marvel did the same here; Make no mistake, ‘artist friendly’ Disney is in charge, ”Toberoff said. “At the center of these cases is an anachronistic and heavily criticized interpretation of ‘work performance’ under the Copyright Act of 1909, which must be corrected.”