Disney files lawsuits to keep full rights to Marvel characters

The Walt Disney Company is suing to maintain full control of Marvel characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Dr. Strange and others.

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Disney, which owns Marvel, is seeking to ward off copyright termination notices served by artists and illustrators involved with Marvel’s iconic characters, The New York Times reported.

The heirs of five Marvel authors filed dozens of termination notices with the U.S. Copyright Office, according to Variety.

The move comes after heirs of five Marvel authors filed dozens of termination notices with the U.S. Copyright Office. If the notices succeed, they would not prevent Disney from using the disputed Marvel characters. However, it would force Marvel Entertainment to share ownership of the characters and make payments to the heirs, according to Variety.

Daniel Petrocelli, a Los Angeles litigator, filed the complaints on Disney’s behalf in federal courts in New York and California, the Times reported.

The dispute began in the spring when intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff served Marvel Entertainment, which Disney owns, with notices of copyright termination on behalf of five clients, the newspaper reported. They include Lawrence Lieber, 89, a comics writer and artist known for his 1960s-era contributions to key Marvel characters. Lieber’s older brother, Stan Lee, who died in 2018, was the chief writer and editor of Marvel Comics.

Toberoff’s other clients are the estates of comics illustrators Steve Ditko and Don Heck, and the heirs of writers Don Rico and Gene Colan, according to the Times. Rico is the creator of the Black Widow character.

Toberoff once represented Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in an unsuccessful termination attempt against DC Comics, according to The Hollywood Reporter. DC was represented by Petrocelli, who is now representing Disney.

Toberoff also represented the estate of comic book legend Jack Kirby over whether he could terminate a copyright grant on Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and The Mighty Thor, according to The Hollywood Reporter. In August 2013, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that determined Kirby’s heirs could not regain his share of rights to these characters because the former Marvel freelancer had contributed his materials as a work made for hire, the website reported.

Petrocelli said the same standard applies to the current litigation.

“Since these were works made for hire and thus owned by Marvel, we filed these lawsuits to confirm that the termination notices are invalid and of no legal effect,” Petrocelli told the Times in a telephone interview.

The heirs are basing their complaint on a provision of the Copyright Revision Act of 1976, which allows authors or their heirs to regain ownership of a product after a given number of years, the Times reported.

In a complaint filed against Lieber, Disney stated, “Marvel assigned Lieber stories to write, had the right to exercise control over Lieber’s contributions and paid Lieber a per-page rate for his contributions.”

Toberoff disagreed, telling the Times in an email that “at the time all these characters were created, their material was definitely not ‘work made for hire’ under the law.”

“These guys were all freelancers or independent contractors, working piecemeal for carfare out of their basements. Hence, not ‘traditional, full-time employees.’”

“At the core of these cases is an anachronistic and highly criticized interpretation of ‘work-made-for-hire,’” Toberoff wrote in a separate email.

The termination of the copyright law only applies in the United States, meaning that Disney can continue to control and profit in foreign markets regardless of the outcome of the current lawsuits, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

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