When Disney announced that it was buying Marvel for $4 billion last fall, the hype failed to mention that Jack Kirby‘s kids were seeking to recover ownership rights to some of the most popular titles in recent times — including such luminaries as X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Spider Man, the Avengers, and the Incredible Hulk. While the notices of termination served by clan Kirby would not take effect until 2014 at the earliest, whether the heirs of the acknowledged co-creator of these characters can reclaim ownership rights is potentially a $1 billion question. Given the increasing popularity of the superhero genre at the box office and — on the heels of Avatar — the obvious interest in producing 3D tales of their heroic adventures, the battle for ownership is likely to be protracted. In response to the Kirby’s shot across the bows, Marvel last month filed suit in federal district court in Manhattan seeking a declaration that Kirby’s creation of the characters was simply work-for-hire, and that his heirs have no ownership interest nor right to any additional compensation.
If the story has a familiar ring to it, that’s because this bell has been rung before. Those of you who follow the always-entertaining rulings produced by Hollywood copyright skirmishes will recall that in 2008 the heirs of Jerry Siegal recovered a share of the copyright in Superman, which had been sold to Detective Comics for $130 in 1938. Doubtless the Kirby kids are seeking a bigger check than that.
To follow the saga of the Kirby’s claims in more detail, start with Ben Fritz’s article in the LA Times and follow the links.
I am a commercial litigator and intellectual property lawyer in Orange County. Although my practice encompasses a wide variety of business disputes, I have a particular fondness for, and am prone to wax philosophical on, the subjects of copyright and trademark infringement in music, literature, art, and film.