The battle for superheroes: Marvel character creators sue Disney to regain rights

Marvil Superheroes Disney

It is an old story in the world of comics. The creators, considered for decades authors of a minor genre, were underpaid and, what is worse, did not own the rights to their creations, which became the property of the publisher. This generated not a few revolts – and even the founding of publishing houses such as Image in 1992 – but even the world of comics did not generate the income that it currently generates. And that money is a powerful incentive to take up the battle.

Five historical Marvel artists – or their heirs – have submitted various notifications to U.S. courts requesting the termination of copyright, currently owned by Disney. The characters on which they claim authorship range from Spiderman to Doctor Strange or the Black Widow, among many others. To achieve this, the creators would have to receive a part of the benefits that their characters generate in the future. 

Among the claimants is Larry Lieber, brother of the mythical Stan Lee and one of the key pieces of Marvel for half a century and especially in the 1960s, when the publisher created its great icons. Thus, Lieber’s mind scripted the first appearances of ThorIron Man or Ant-Man, among others. 

Also added are the heirs of Steve Ditko (original artist of Spiderman and Doctor Strange), those of Don Heck (co-creator of Iron Man and Hawkeye, among others), of Gene Colan (co-creator of the Falcon, Blade or the Guardians of the Galaxy) and Don Rico (co-creator of the Black Widow and other lesser-known characters from the 1940s).

The heirs of these authors and Lieber himself, through his lawyer, Marc Toberoff, avail themselves of a section of U.S. copyright law that would allow them to regain ownership of the characters (currently Disney, after the acquisition from Marvel in 2009). 

The key to the question, and what the courts will have to decide, is whether these authors worked in a situation similar to that of a freelancer or were they considered employees of the company. In the first case, the ownership of the rights would always be Marvel/Disney because it would pay the author on request and the copyright law would not apply to him. In the second, the rights could revert to the authors.

Faced with the authors’ claim, the Walt Disney Company has filed respective lawsuits to invalidate their request and arguing that they were commissioned jobs, as the corporation did years ago in a similar case with the heirs of another key figure of the company. publisher, Jack Kirby.

The plaintiffs’ attorney has already confronted both Marvel in the Kirby character case and DC over Superman’s rights. In the first case an economic agreement was reached, but in the second they lost the judicial dispute.