Disney sues former Marvel artists over rights dispute

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Walt Disney Co. is taking legal action against former Marvel Comics writers and illustrators who are trying to claim rights to characters and stories they worked on decades ago, including Iron Man, Spider-Man and Daredevil.

Disney-owned Marvel on Friday sued several former Marvel comic artists to strike down copyright termination notices they served against the entertainment giant. Marvel has filed several complaints in federal courts in New York and California.

The artists, all but one deceased, worked for Marvel in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Their representatives served their termination notices earlier this year. Artists include Lawrence D. Lieber, 89, a writer Marvel hired in 1958 who has written stories starring Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man.

Lieber is the younger brother of the late Stan Lee, whose work with Marvel has been the basis of much of the publisher’s success and has long been one of the publisher’s most recognizable public faces. Lee passed away in 2018.

Lieber is represented by entertainment industry attorney Marc Toberoff, who also works with estates of artists Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Don Rico, and Gene Colan in similar Marvel character rights claims.

Marvel, which filed its lawsuits as Marvel Characters Inc., said in court documents that because Lieber and the others were working as “work for pay,” they had no legal ownership rights in the characters on. which they were working on. “[A]All contributions Lieber made were at the expense and expense of Marvel, making his contributions paid work, to which the termination provisions of the Copyright Act do not apply, ”Marvel said in one of his complaints.

Dan Petrocelli, the lawyer representing Marvel in the case, reiterated the company’s point in an emailed statement.

“As these were works rented and therefore owned by Marvel, we have filed these lawsuits to confirm that the termination notices are invalid and without legal effect,” said Petrocelli.

Disney, based in Burbank, has a reputation for protecting its intellectual property, which is the cornerstone of its business strategy. The studio has created a series of remarkably successful films based on the comic book franchise, most recently including “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 like “Loki” and “WandaVision.”

But even if the artists’ claims were successful, they would not impede Disney’s ability to exploit their ownership of Marvel characters through films or other parts of its business, people familiar with the matter said who were not. allowed to comment. Instead, Marvel and Disney may have to compensate artists for their uses of the characters.

The disputes echo an earlier closely watched case in which Toberoff represented the heirs of Jack Kirby, co-creator of several of Marvel’s most famous heroes, in their fight for the rights of comic book characters.

Four children of Kirby, known for his work on the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor and Hulk, have served dozens of termination notices on Marvel, Disney, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures in 2009, the same year that Disney acquired Marvel for $ 4 billion. Marvel sued in response.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that Kirby’s contributions were work for pay and his family could not claim ownership of the characters. Toberoff appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and Kirby’s heirs installed with Marvel in 2014 before the case had a chance to come to this.

Toberoff, in a statement, disagreed with Disney’s current argument and the lower court ruling in the Kirby case, in which he said that “Marvel also sued Kirby’s family for practicing its rights under copyright law.

“Here, Marvel has done the same; but make no mistake, it’s ‘artist-friendly’ Disney leading the way, ”Toberoff said. “At the heart of these cases is an anachronistic and much criticized interpretation of ‘work done for hire’ under the Copyright Act of 1909 which needs to be rectified.”


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