Stan Lee Media claims that it owns the copyrights to Spider Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, X-Men and most of the Avengers and has filed suit against the Walt Disney Co., which acquired Marvel several years ago and is reaping the rewards via popular film franchises.
But the suit, filed in a Colorado federal court on Tuesday, is not about famed comicbook creator Stan Lee laying claim to his copyrights — far from it.
Instead, the litigation is the latest twist in the life of his eponymous company, which has a tangled legal and bankruptcy history that even the plaintiffs in the case call “tortured.”
In its suit, Stan Lee Media claims that Lee (who is no longer associated with Stan Lee Media) assigned the copyrights to the characters to a predecessor company in 1998. But in November 1998, the suit contends, Lee signed a written agreement with Marvel Entertainment in which he “purportedly assigned” rights to the characters to Marvel. Because he had already assigned over the characters to Stan Lee Media, Lee “no longer owned those rights” and the Marvel agreement “actually assigned nothing,” the suit states. Stan Lee Media claims that it publicly recorded Lee’s copyright assignment agreement with the U.S. Copyright Office. But Stan Lee Media says neither Marvel or Disney has ever recorded Lee’s agreement with Marvel to the office.
The suit contends that Disney’s exploitation of the characters has generated more than $2 billion.
A spokeswoman for Disney said: “The lawsuit is without merit. It arises out of the same core facts and legal claims that have been rejected by three federal district court judges.”
Lee has contended that the copyrights he assigned over to Marvel were not the same as those he assigned to Stan Lee Media, and U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty ruled in 2010 that a “lifetime” agreement that Lee signed in 1998 was in violation of California labor laws. In August, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson granted Lee’s motion to dismiss Stan Lee Media’s latest action, ruling that the claims already were raised or could have been raised in prior litigation.