Disney Sues to Invalidate Copyright Return Notices Filed by the Creators of Marvel Universe Characters

The Walt Disney Company is under pressure to return rights to perhaps the most iconic and valuable character franchise, the Marvel Superhero Universe, to many of the artists and illustrators who created them or their heirs. Disney is not expected to relinquish these priceless copyrights without a fight.  

A flurry of lawsuits seeking to invalidate copyright termination notices filed by creators of iconic characters like Spider-Man. Iron Man and Thor, and their heirs, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

“The dispute started in the spring when a prominent intellectual property lawyer, Marc Toberoff, served Marvel Entertainment, which Disney owns, with notices of copyright termination on behalf of five clients,” said the Times.

They include Lawrence D. Lieber, 89, a comics writer and artist known for his 1960s-era contributions to bedrock Marvel characters. Mr. Lieber’s older brother, Stan Lee, was chief writer and editor of Marvel Comics. Mr. Lee died in 2018.

Since Disney purchased Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, reported CNBC in 2019, it had earned $18 billion in global movie box office alone.

The reclamation attempts stem from a provision of copyright law that, under certain conditions, allows authors or their heirs to regain ownership of a product after a given number of years. Such efforts turn on whether authors worked as hired hands or produced the material on their own and then sold it to publishers.

Recording Artists, Too

The Copyright Revision Act of 1976, which opened the door to termination attempts, bans termination for people who delivered work at the “instance and expense” of an employer, aka “a work for hire.” Copyright termination notices have become a controversial area for content creators, including song writers and recording artists.

The Copyright Act of 1976 allows recording artists and songwriters the right to claw back rights to copyrighted work 35 years after creation. This so-called “termination right” is designed to enable creators to renegotiate the publishing or license deals they entered into before the true value of their work was known.

A song may not generate much attention or money when it is first created, but may be used years later in a movie that shoots it to the top of the charts. And many artists cannot get their works published without first assigning away rights. The termination right applies to rights assigned from January 1, 1978, on condition the works were not “made for hire”.

Many songwriters including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Prince and David Byrne have either done so or threatened to do so as they renegotiated royalty deals.

Evan Cohen has helped terminate the contracts of 200 artists and songwriters including Bobby Womack, Gang of Four, Todd Rundgren, Stephen Bishop, The Turtles, and Ricki Lee Jones.

Since Disney purchased Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, reported CNBC in 2019, it had earned $18 billion in global movie box office alone.

Royalties at Stake

If successful, reports the Times, Mr. Toberoff’s clients would receive a portion of profits from new works based on any of the copyrighted material.

A 2013 case involving characters created and work provided by artist Jack Kirby, including those associated with Hulk, Captain America and X-Men was won by Marvel and subsequently settled as the case was being considered for review before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Image source: anamiespider.com; marvel.com

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