According to the complaints, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Disney seeks a ruling that their blockbuster Avengers characters are not eligible for copyright termination, since they were works made for hire. On the other side are the heirs of some of the most notable comic book creators, such as Gene Colan, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee.
The creative works in question are such iconic characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Thor, Falcon and others. If Marvel loses the lawsuit, Disney must share ownership of the characters, worth billions of dollars, with the artists’ heirs.
Ditko’s estate filed a notice of termination on Spider-Man in August, a character that made its comic book debut in 1962. Copyright law’s termination provisions state that authors or their heirs may reclaim rights from a publisher after a set period of time. In this case, the date when Marvel must relinquish its rights is June 2023.
There are other imminent termination notices that Marvel is being served with. For example, Marvel writer Larry Lieber filed termination notices for his creative work in May.
Marc Toberoff, the lawyer who represented the creators of Superman in an unsuccessful termination lawsuit against DC Comics, is representing the comic book creator’s heirs in this recent case. Coincidentally, Dan Petrocelli of O’Melveny, the legal counsel for the publisher in the earlier case, is now representing Disney as it tries to retain the rights to the Avengers characters.
Petrocelli has filed lawsuits in California and New York against Lieber, Patrick Ditko, Don Rico, Don Heck and Keith Dettwiler. The case will examine the creation of famous characters in comic books and determine the statutory author.
At issue is the “Marvel Method,” which is a loose collaborative work environment where ideas are briefly discussed with artists who are responsible for the details. This method was the subject of litigation a decade ago, to resolve a dispute over “Ghost Rider.” The argument is that the company has the right to exercise its creative control and pay the artist a fee for their work.