Marvel finds itself in a legal battle of epic proportions, as the rights for Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and other major superheroes are being contested. Recently, several lawsuits have been filed by various parties — including the estate of the late, great Steve Ditko — to terminate various copyrights that relate to some of Marvel’s biggest characters.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, various complaints have been filed from the estates of comic legends such as Stan Lee, Gene Colan, and Steve Ditko. At stake are the rights to characters such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Falcon, and Thor, among others. For those who have been paying attention to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is a lot of A-listers in the legal crosshairs. The estates of these creators are suing to terminate copyrights so that they would be in control (at least partially) of these characters. Disney, meanwhile, is suing to hold onto the rights, claiming that they are ineligible for termination. (Note: the various lawsuits only pertain to U.S. copyright law).
Should this drag out and Marvel ultimately lose these legal battles, they would have to share ownership of the characters. And since these characters are worth millions, if not billions, there’s a lot at stake.
A Super Complicated Superhero Mess
The logistics of these legal battles are complex. In essence, creators of written works have the right to terminate copyrights after a certain number of years. The problem is (as ComicBook.com explains) Marvel is going to claim that these were done as work-for-hire, which would mean creators such as Ditko don’t have any claim to the underlying IP. Similar lawsuits have been filed in the past by the estates of creators such as Jack Kirby and Jerry Siegel. Kirby’s case was ultimately settled amicably. Siegel, who co-created Superman, prevailed with DC. Any “Superman” project must now include the following line:
But the finer points can be even more difficult to pin down. The most prominent current example is the ongoing “Friday the 13th” lawsuit. Screenwriter Victor Miller filed for termination and the legal battle has dragged on for years. The problem is, while he may own the “Friday the 13th” name and what was contained in the original 1980 slasher classic, what came later is less clear. Namely, Jason Voorhees didn’t become the killer until the sequel. So Miller could, in theory, end up owning the name while Jason is a separate entity controlled by the studio.
The same could happen for Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, for example. Costumes, origin stories and other Marvel characters are among the elements included in their appearances at the center of these legal battles — the comic book issues “Amazing Fantasy #15” and “Strange Tales #110.” Marvel could lose or have to share control of these elements, while things that came later may not be included in the legal entanglement. It’s complicated.
What Does This Mean for Marvel Fans?
Spider-Man: Far From Home shock
Hypothetically, this could mean big things for the MCU and future Marvel Comics publications. Should the estates of these creators prevail, Marvel and Disney would have to share the rights to these characters, which would be costly. They would also, perhaps, need the estate’s approval to use certain stories or character elements in movies or TV shows. It would add red tape and money to the equation.
That being said, there is almost no chance that Disney/Marvel let it get that far. They will, undoubtedly, settle the matter behind closed doors through some sort of financial arrangement with the creators’ estates, and fans won’t notice any impact. But this could pave the way for many more lawsuits in the future, which is why the outcome is of particular importance.
It will be settled behind closed doors. The rich want to remain rich and get richer.