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With ownership rights of its heroes at stake, Marvel sues families of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, others

By Vanessa Armstrong
Stan Lee

Disney is going to court on Marvel’s behalf. The corporation has sued the families of Marvel legends Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Don Rico, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Gene Colan in order to prevent them from claiming copyrights for a slew of Marvel characters, including Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Thor, and Black Widow.

There's a lot of complicated legal machinations going on here, but we'll try to sum up the key points reported today in a story by The Hollywood Reporter. Reportedly, Disney filed the lawsuits in response to receiving copyright termination notices from the above families, which claim that the rights of the characters should revert to the creators’ heirs.

The families of the creators claim that copyright law allows them to reclaim rights once a set amount of time has passed. Disney is arguing that that part of copyright law doesn’t apply here, as the creators came up with the characters under a work-for-hire contract. If the families win out, they will have partial rights to a slew of Marvel characters that are now worth billions.

Previous cases, however, have tended to side with the publisher. In 2014, Jack Kirby’s family had taken a similar path, and an appeals court in that case ruled in favor of Disney, saying that Kirby was working for-hire. The two parties ultimately settled, with Disney giving the Kirby family an undisclosed amount of money rather than having the case be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. DC has also faced a similar case, with Superman creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster trying and failing with their own termination notice.

For Disney, the legendary “Marvel Method” — where authors and artists collaborated on creating comic book issues — works in the corporation’s favor as the system makes it hard to assign ownership to a specific individual, so chances are these cases will be ruled in Disney's favor or settled out of court. If the families win, however, Disney would still hold on to some rights to the characters and be able to control and profit from any ventures they have outside of the United States.

So what does all this mean for the average Marvel fan? If Disney wins, things will keep chugging along as usual. If the families win, Disney would no longer have full control over major Marvel characters, meaning that at best they’d have to negotiate and share profits for any future MCU films with these characters or potentially decide to stop using them completely. Cases like these, however, often take years, so there's still a lot of time before we may see any impact to how Disney/Marvel does business.