3 Bonkers Details From Marvel's Legal Battle Over Rights To Spider-Man, Iron Man, and More
In a lawsuit best described as the legal hybrid of both the Thanos snap and that meme of all the Spider-Men pointing at each other, Marvel filed five lawsuits against the estates of some of their most prolific creators last Friday. Following a series of copyright termination notices from the heirs of several Marvel legends, including Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Don Rico, and Gene Colan, the suits were filed in an attempt to continue exclusively holding the rights to some of their most popular characters including Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, and Doctor Strange, among others.
From how Marvel could have to share the rights to Spider-Man – with a non-Sony party -- to the X-Men's previous courtroom showdown, here are three of the weirdest details from the MCU case and legal superhero history as a whole.
1. Marvel could have to share the rights to Spider-Man, Iron Man, and more if they lose.
So how did Marvel go from raking in the millions with their beloved cast of characters to potentially losing a big chunk of their catalog with a single Thanos-esque snap? Back in August, Steve Ditko's estate filed copyright termination notices for Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, some of the many termination documents filed against the company by revered intellectual property lawyer, Marc Toberoff, according to complaints obtained by The Hollywood Reporter.
Now, before you start hoarding DVD copies of all your favorite superhero movies, it seems Spider-Man, Black Widow, and Iron Man aren't going anywhere – and not just because the latter is canonically dead. If the termination notices go through, the company could still use the heroes in question, however, they'd share the ownership of these characters, which are worth “billions” with the estates of their creators, the entertainment outlet noted. So what exactly would this entail? In short, the company would have to pony up some cold, hard cash to the creators' heirs -- which in Marvel's eyes, is probably a punishment deemed akin to having the Mind Stone responsible for your consciousness ripped from your brain by a genocidal alien warlord.
Furthermore, these claims would take some time to go into effect, at least in the case of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, with Ditko's estate saying the company would need to relinquish the rights to both the friendly, neighborhood crime fighter and the reigning Sorcerer Supreme by June 2023, The Guardian reported.
Meanwhile, Marvel is arguing that because these legends were essentially working for hire, their heirs' claims of ownership are moot.
“Since these were works made for hire and thus owned by Marvel, we filed these lawsuits to confirm that the termination notices are invalid and of no legal effect,” attourney Daniel Petrocelli, who is leading Marvel's legal team said in a statement, adding that all five of the cases contain “virtually identical circumstances.”
2. Before taking on the case, Marc Toberoff represented estates of Superman co-creators, Jack Kirby's children.
Even with Marvel's insistence that the creator's estates/next of kin can't claim the heroes as their own, attorney Marc Toberoff, who is representing the estates of Steve Ditko, Don Rico, Gene Colan, and Don Heck, as well as Stan Lee's brother, Larry Lieber apparently disagrees, telling Variety the suit is a violation of artists' rights. “This is the deep dark secret of the comic book industry, if not now the entire entertainment industry, due to the explosion of these superhero franchises,” the attorney said. “It’s about artists’ rights. It’s literally about injustice.”
Despite having all the makings of a superhero showdown, this lawsuit is more of a re-match for Toberoff; Throughout the past decade and change, the attorney has represented the estates/heirs of superhero creators in similar rights-related suits, including the co-creators of Superman, and most notably in this context, the four children of Jack Kirby in a lawsuit that spanned throughout the late aughts and early 20-teens.
In 2009, the same year Disney's acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion, Kirby's kids attempted to reclaim the rights to “dozens” of MCU characters their father created and co-created including the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and even Guardians of the Galaxy's Groot, according to the New York Times. In light of Toberoff's allegations that up to 88% of the company's cinematic earnings were “Kirby related," per the publication, and that, well, Guardians of the Galaxy just wouldn't be the same without our favorite ultra-intelligent, sentient tree-like alien creature, the two parties attempted to settle. The next year, however, no deal had been reached and Marvel hit back with a lawsuit in January 2010.
“We took the initiative because we have a very strong legal position,” James W. Quinn, who served as one of Marvel's attorneys said of their decision at the time. “There is no question that Kirby was a great artist. But that’s not the law.”
Roughly two months later, Kirby's estate shot back with a suit against both Marvel and Disney. Alleging that Kirby wasn't being properly credited or paid for his intellectual property, they requested the lawsuit be dismissed. “The family has nothing to show for all of this,” Toberoff said amid the suit. “They just want what is fair.”
Over the next several years, the legal battle intensified, with the United States Supreme Court even considering taking on the case, per Reuters. However, in September 2014, the parties ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum, a move that likely had to do with the broader implications of how a ruling would impact the rest of Hollywood.
“Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history," the company said in a statement to the New York Times shortly after the settlement.
3. Rights aside, Marvel characters have been on trial IRL
Beyond rights-related battles, the characters within the MCU have been subjects of IRL trials themselves, namely, the X-Men and their humanity – or lack thereof. Back in 2003, Marvel Comics' subsidiary, Toy Biz, Inc, duked it out with the United States Court of International Trade regarding whether or not the X-Men were technically defined as “mutants” and if the Fantastic Four, and some Spider-Man villains could be legally categorized as “non-human creatures,” according to Polygon.
Although the company said these characters did, in fact, “manifest human characteristics at varying degrees,” they weren't necessarily human. In making this argument, the company cited Wolverine's likeness to, well, a Wolverine, noting his "long, sharplooking claws grafted onto his hands that come out from under his skin along with wolf-like hair and ears.”
Now, why, exactly were the X-Men's humanity debated in a court of law? Like most bizarre technicality-heavy lawsuits, the answer ties back to good ‘ol tariff laws. “As dolls, X-Men figures were tied to tariffs of up to 12%. But as “nonhuman” toys, this figure was almost halved, to 6.8%,” Polygon’s Cian Maher wrote of the case. The importance of this distinction lies in the official definition of a doll, which according to the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States, must “represent a human being," the outlet reported. Ultimately, Toy Biz Inc. came out on top, the judge ruling that the characters in question were not, in fact humans.
“the action figure playthings at issue here are not properly classifiable as ‘dolls’ under the HTSUS by virtue of various non-human characteristics they exhibit.” Judge Judith Barzilay, who presided over the humanity-testing suit wrote in her official ruling.
Considering they just nabbed a pretty darn good bargain, Marvel was evidently pleased with this decision, issuing an, erm, seemingly contradictory, statement in honor of winning their case. "Our heroes are living, breathing human beings — but humans who have extraordinary abilities,” it read. “A decision that the X-Men figures indeed do have ‘non-human’ characteristics further proves our characters have special, out-of-this world powers.”
Whatever helps you sleep at night – or more importantly, saves you roughly 6% in tariffs.
Top Image: Marvel