September 20, 2009 - The estate of comic book icon Jack Kirby has filed a copyright lawsuit against Marvel Entertainment, challenging the company's -- and its new potential corporate parent, Disney's -- long-term rights to certain characters. But Marvel and Disney aren't the only companies getting pulled into the fray; so are all the film studios producing movies based on characters that the late Kirby helped create during the Silver Age of Marvel Comics.
The New York Times reports that lawyers for the Kirby estate have "sent 45 notices of copyright termination to Marvel and Disney, as well as Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and other companies that have been using the characters." Paramount is distributing Marvel's four upcoming self-produced movies: Iron Man 2, Thor, The First Avenger: Captain America and The Avengers; Fox holds the screen rights to the Fantastic Four and X-Men characters; Sony has Spider-Man; and Universal holds the screen rights to Hulk.
(What's curious about the copyright termination notice sent to Sony is that their only Marvel movies are Spider-Man and Ghost Rider. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko have always been credited as the co-creators of Spider-Man, although there has long been debate over the extent of Kirby's involvement in the creation of the wall-crawler, as recounted here. Are the Kirbys looking to challenge Sony's claims to Spider-Man?)
Bleeding Cool reports that the Kirby estate's claims, "if found valid, would begin from 2014 and, as always, its worth noting that Marvel/Disney will still own the trademarks of the characters in comics, and the studios in movies. The likelihood is that, if successful, the Kirby estate would enter into negotiation with Marvel over terms to continue publishing comics based on his work."
This looks like it could get ugly and it's a major story that's just getting started.
In terms of Captain America they most certainly have a case since Joe Simon sued them a few years back and they quietly settled. (Whether Jack Kirby's estate was offered a similar deal at the time would be a good question.) The case would be similar to the Siegel Superman case because it was a 1940's case and I am fairly certain that Simon and Kirby offered the character to multiple companies before publishing with Timely in 1940.
In terms of the other characters created with Stan Lee mostly in the 60's, to get his original artwork back, Jack had to sign a retroactive release of his copyright to any character that he had created with Marvel.
There is an argument that that was a contract signed under duress. At the time that he signed that contract, he wanted the artwork back, partly so that he could keep some prize pieces, but also so that he could sell pieces to provide for him and Roz in their retirement.
Its the same lawyer that got the Siegel estate the origin of Superman back to them. With that ruling it releases the floodgates for past comic book properties. I actually hope he wins due to how much I loath the Disney deal. Yet, I am sure the original ruling will get overruled due the loftiness of the decision and easiness of finding a judge who would need campaign money.