In a move that will make the Walt Disney Company copyright lawyers sweat, the estate of comic book artist Steve Ditko has filed two copyright termination notices with Disney / Marvel regarding copyright to Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. For those unfamiliar with this somewhat new development in copyright law, it all stems from the Copyright Act 1976 which contains a section that allows creators and even their heirs to recover the copyright. rights in a work offering them “giving them the opportunity to share in the subsequent economic success of their works” and “to regain copyright or copyright previously granted”. Let’s break it down below
What makes notice of termination difficult for creators and their families to obtain comes down to the classification of how it was created. Marvel will undoubtedly argue that Ditko created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange as “Works for Hire,” which would give Marvel the copyright permanently and not entitle Ditko’s estate to any compensation. . Ditko’s family will argue that these designs were made by Ditko and then sold / licensed to Marvel at the time (possibly as part of an unfair deal), which would make them unpaid work.
One of the problems with copyright termination notices is that, if granted, they only count towards the US rights to the work and also do not include derivative works created at the. origin. The notices filed by Patrick J. Ditko, nephew of the prolific artist, are specifically aimed at terminating the copyrights in the Spider-Man story from Amazing Fantasy # 15 and the Doctor Strange story from Strange Tales # 110. These are two official origin stories for both characters, but they also introduced other major Marvel characters into the canon like The Ancient One, Wong, Aunt May, and Uncle Ben.
Could the Ditko case succeed? May be. Several creators have successfully terminated the copyrights of their works and reclaimed the rights in recent years, including the Wes Craven estate for A Nightmare on Elm Street, Clive Barker with his short story that inspired Hellraiser, and more. . Perhaps the most famous case is that of screenwriter Victor Miller, who wrote the screenplay for the original Friday the 13th film; although he was successful in reclaiming the rights to his screenplay, it sparked a series of lawsuits regarding the derivative works and ownership of the rights to the series as a whole. As a result, he put the series on ice for years without any new feature films made in over a decade.
It’s worth noting that the family of a prolific comic book creator have already tried this on Marvel with Jack Kirby’s family filing some 45 copyright termination notices. Although they lost their case in multiple courts when Kirby’s work was considered hire-work, the family and Marvel would later announce that they had “amicably resolved their legal differences.” It’s unclear whether this was a monetary settlement regarding Kirby’s estate, but with a feature film from The Eternals due out in two months, it seems likely.
Let’s not forget perhaps the most famous example of a family of comic book creators who have managed to reclaim the rights to their creation, DC Comics and Superman, which must now include the line “By special arrangement with the family Jerry Siegel “on all instances with the man from Steel.
As of this writing, notices from the Ditko Estate indicate that the termination will be effective June 2, 2023, and for Doctor Strange, the termination will be effective June 9, 2023. Marvel and Disney will undoubtedly oppose each other. to these copyright termination notices. look for more updates on this in the coming years (it will almost certainly take a while).
(H / T RBC)