Marvel fans who have been dreaming about future sequels to Iron Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man might be entering into a creative nightmare. According to The Hollywood Reporter the children of comic book icon Jack Kirby have officially sued Marvel to terminate copyrights and gain profits from such lucrative comic creations as Iron Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man.
The suit, officially filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, is a follow-up move from the 45 notices of termination the estate sent out to Marvel, and owner the Walt Disney Co., as well as Sony, Universal, Fox in September of 2009. Marvel responded in January, filing its own lawsuit, claiming the creations were “work-made-for-hire” and that Marvel was the real “author” of such works under the 1909 Copyright Act.
Kirby’s heirs are seeking declaratory relief, including copyright termination and profits, focusing on Kirby’s chief creative period, from 1958 to 1963, when Marvel existed in a tiny office with few employees and relied upon “freelancers to which they had little or no obligation.” As such, they are disputing Marvel’s claim that all creations were “work for hire.”
The complaint is careful about what the estate believes it is entitled to control, since Kirby often worked in tandem with others, particularly Stan Lee: “With respect to Co-Owned Kirby Works, as of the respective Termination Dates, Defendants will jointly own the copyrights to such works for their renewal terms: both Plaintiffs and Defendants will have the non-exclusive right to exploit such jointly owned copyrights…”
So, even though several studios currently have a license to produce movies like Spider-Man (Sony) and X-Men (Fox), if successful, the court action could give the Kirby estate the ability to license competing versions. The Kirby estate doesn’t state how much it thinks it’s owed, but any termination of copyrights could be worth tens of millions of dollars, if not more. Since Disney bought Marvel last year for an impressive $4 billion, you do the math…
If you’re looking for some interesting reading, the full complaint filed by Marc Toberoff, the Kirby estate’s attorney, is available for your reading pleasure.