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Disney steps up fight to protect Marvel franchise in copyright battle

Disney has stepped up its fight to retain control of the copyright on several of its Marvel heroes including Iron Man, Spider-Man and Thor.

The entertainment giant has been locked in a legal dispute since spring with relatives and the estates of artists who contributed to the creation of some of Marvel’s most iconic characters. 

On Friday, the Walt Disney Company filed a series of lawsuits seeking to invalidate copyright-termination notices served on the behalf of at least five co-creators. 

These include Lawrence D. Lieber, 89, the older brother of the legendary late Marvel Comics chief writer and editor Stan Lee. 

Lieber was himself a comics writer and artist who contributed to classic Marvel characters in the 1960s including Iron Man, Thor and Ant-Man.

The other creators involved in the lawsuit are the estates of illustrators Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and Don Heck, co-creator of Iron Man, Black Widow and Hawkeye.

The heirs of the writers Don Rico, co-creator of Black Widow, and Gene Colan, co-creator of Falcon, Captain Marvel and Blade, are also involved.

Disney has stepped up its fight to retain control of the copyright on several of its Marvel heroes including Iron Man (pictured), Spider-Man and Thor. On Friday, the Walt Disney Company filed a series of lawsuits seeking to invalidate copyright-termination notices served on the behalf of at least five co-creators

Comic book characters such as Iron Man (depicted above) and Thor have become huge money-makers for Marvel and Disney

Comic book characters such as Iron Man and Thor (depicted right) have spawned hugely successful franchises with lucrative merchandise

Comic book characters such as Iron Man (left) and Thor (right) have become huge money-makers for Marvel and Disney, spawning hugely successful franchises with lucrative merchandise

Together with the help of prominent intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff, they are seeking to reclaim rights related to characters they contributed to creating, several of which bring in huge revenues for Marvel and Disney through merchandise, TV spin-offs and films. 

Disney is already embroiled in a lawsuit with Marvel star Scarlett Johansson over a pay dispute relating to ticket sales for the recent film Black Widow, in which she had the title role.

The complaints on Disney’s behalf were filed in federal courts in New York and California on Friday by Los Angeles litigator Daniel M. Petrocelli. 

The lawsuit centres around a copyright law provision that can allow authors or their heirs to regain ownership of a product after a number of years, The New York Times reported. 

It all hinges on whether authors worked as hired hands or produced the material independently before selling it to publishers, the paper explained. 

Termination for those who worked at the ‘instance and expense’ of an employer is banned under The Copyright Revision Act of 1973.

Petrocelli has said that the creators did work for hire and thus their output is owned by Marvel.

The creators taking on Disney include Lawrence D. Lieber, 89, the older brother of the legendary late Marvel Comics chief writer and editor Stan Lee (pictured) [File photo]

The creators taking on Disney include Lawrence D. Lieber, 89, the older brother of the legendary late Marvel Comics chief writer and editor Stan Lee (pictured) [File photo]

However, Toberoff disagrees, telling the New York Times that the artists ‘were all freelancers or independent contractors’ not ‘traditional, full-time employees’.

The notices state his clients are hoping to regain copyright to some of their creations by 2023, meaning they would receive a percentage of the profits from any new works based on their characters if successful. 

Regardless of the outcome, Marvel will still be able to use the characters, Digital Spy reported. 

As studios rely more heavily on established characters and franchises to capitalise on a pre-existing fan base, rights issues have become a more frequent headache.

Toberoff and Petrocelli have even faced off before over the issue of rights, in a legal battle between Warner Bros studio represented by Petrocelli, and Toberoff’s clients – the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. Courts ruled in favour of Warner.

Toberoff also unsuccessfully took on  Marvel in 2009, when he represented the heirs of artist Jack Kirby who were attempting to reclaim the rights to some of his co-creations including the Hulk, Captain America and X-Men. 


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