Marvel filed multiple lawsuits today in an effort to keep its rights to iconic Avengers characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Falcon, and more.
While it is easy to assume that these classic Marvel characters are actually owned by the company, surprisingly that is not the case. The original owners of the characters were the actual creators themselves, such as legendary comic book creators and writers Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan, until they gave up the copyright. Back in the day, it was a much easier discussion to give these character rights up simply because there was no big TV, film, or video game adaptation of it. Now that billions are being made from their creations, it’s a whole different discussion.
Marvel holds its current rights to characters like Iron Man through copyright protections. Essentially, holding the copyright in the character means that Marvel is the only entity that can legally use Iron Man in comics, movies, advertisements, products, and more.
Under copyright law, the original creator can reclaim rights to her character after a certain period of time has passed. Last month, Ditko’s estate filed to terminate Marvel’s copyright on Spider-Man, who first appeared in comic book form in 1962. According to Ditko’s estate, the law requires that Marvel’s copyright end in June of 2023. While the idea of Marvel losing Spider-Man in less than two years is terrifying, Ditko’s estate’s claim most likely will not be successful.
Marvel is countering Ditko’s estate’s claim and preemptively acting to protect its rights to other characters. Marvel filed five lawsuits today, asking a court to declare that these characters on the chopping block are ineligible for copyright termination because they are “works made for hire”. A work made for hire is a work–in this case, a character–that was created by an employee as part of their job. Certainly, Marvel employees creating characters for Marvel comic books arguably falls under this definition.
History is on Marvel’s side as well. In 2013, comics legend Jack Kirby’s estate tried to terminate Marvel’s copyright on Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and the Mighty Thor. The court held that Kirby’s estate could not reclaim its rights from Marvel precisely because the Marvel freelancer had contributed these characters as works made for hire.
In any event, the ongoing lawsuits certainly highlight tensions between powerful billion-dollar companies like Marvel and the creators who made these companies what they are. If Marvel does happen to lose against these creators and their estates, it and its parent company Disney would be forced to let ownership of characters worth billions go. Still, it is incredibly hard to mentally or emotionally separate these iconic and beloved characters form Marvel, and the idea of them at a new home is hard to imagine.
Source: The Hollywood Reporter