Marvel, Jack Kirby Heirs Settle Dispute Over Superhero Rights

Marvel Comedy ABC Damage Control
Courtesy of Marvel

The family of Jack Kirby and Marvel Entertainment have resolved a long-running legal dispute over the rights to some of the most popular characters in Marvel’s library, including “Spider-Man” and “X-Men.”

“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 litigants announced in a joint statement on Friday.

The family had been seeking Supreme Court review of their appeal of lower court rulings that largely sided with Marvel.

Kirby’s heirs had sought to terminate grants of copyrights to the characters, under a clause of the 1976 Copyright Act, but Marvel contended that they continued to own the characters because Kirby was working “for hire.” The latter is an exception to artists and families who seek to terminate grants of copyrights.

After the Kirby heirs sent out 45 notices in 2009 seeking to terminate the assignment of copyrights in comics featuring works like “The Incredible Hulk,” “The Avengers” and “The Fantastic Four,” Marvel sued, seeking a court determination that Kirby’s work on the characters was “for hire.” The litigation concered a total of 262 works published between 1958 and 1963.

A federal court sided with Marvel in 2011, and an appellate court upheld the determination that Kirby’s work was “for hire.”

The family, represented by Marc Toberoff, had been seeking Supreme Court review, and the high court was set to consider whether to take it at its conference on Monday. Their writ of certiorari  had drawn the support of organizations like SAG-AFTRA, which argued that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of Marvel created “an onerous, nearly insurmountable presumption that copyright ownership vests in a commissioning party as a work made for hire, rather than in the work’s creator.” Bruce Lehman, former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, also weighed in in favor of the Kirby heirs, arguing that the law in the late 50s and early 60s was that the definition of a work made “for hire” applied only to traditional employees and not freelancers.

Marvel, however, argued that Kirby’s contributions to the works were made at Marvel’s instance, under the editorial and stylistic direction of its editor at the time, Stan Lee.

If the Supreme Court had taken the case, it would have had tremendous implications not just for Marvel, a unit of the Walt Disney Co., but DC Comics as well, as it put into question the definition of what constituted works made “for hire” during the golden age of comics in the 1950s.

 

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  1. Kevin says:

    One of the ultimate fan thrills of my life was back in ’92 when I had the unparalleled privilege of meet-
    ing Jack “King” Kirby at a nearby comics shop, called Bonanza Comics, in Tucson, AZ . This slightly stat-
    ured elderly gentleman had one of the most contagiously warm smiles ever, reminiscent of Fred Rogers
    (aka Mister Rogers) , and the inexhaustible, fun-loving exuberance of a real-life Santa Claus. I’ve been
    to a lot of very memorable personal-appearance events featuring celebrities associated with fantasy
    related fare, but I’ve never seen anyone hold court over a full house of enthralled admirers ranging
    from kindergarten-age kids to fifty-something biker dudes. Hence the truest connotation of his well-
    deserved royal moniker. I’ll never forget his even more devoted and exceptionally patient and under-
    standing wife bemusedly telling the owner’s wife that she always had to tell him to say goodbye to all
    of his new friends so they could close the store.
    The following Saturday I went by this comic shop, which is no longer in business, and the owner related
    to me that being able to bring Mr. Kirby there was nothing short of a dream fulfilled. He also told me that as an added thank you to Jack, after Mrs. Kirby mentioned in passing that he had always wanted a black Stetson hat ever since he was a young boy, he purchased one for him and gave it to him when they went out to dinner following the signing event. This truly humble industry legend was so deeply moved that he
    said his eyes visibly teared up as he immediately placed the pristine hat on his head and radiated the eu-
    phoric joy of a beloved monarch who had his kingdom restored to him by his people after a near lifetime
    of forced abdication. Just like out one of the comics he masterfully and lovingly brought to life.
    Believe you me, whatever the Kirby family received from this settlement will never come anywhere even
    remotely close to compensating them for the innumerably wondrous flights of artistically transcendent
    fantasy that he took us on every time we picked up one of his magnificently rendered comic books. Jack
    Kirby’s body of work and his legacy are both priceless and timeless. ‘Nuff said!

  2. Chelsea says:

    Good for the Kirby family.

  3. Ed Schodde says:

    If you ask me the whole thing is goofy. Disney owns Marvel but yet Sony can do the Spidey movies. Fox does X Men. Paramount does Iron Man Captn America and Thor and even Hulk. Its obvious that Marvel owns all of these characters. Stan Lee created them or at least assumed full credit for them. That’s like saying Todd McFarlane can assume a chunk of Spjdey just cause he drew him well in the tears of 1988-1994. Doesn’t make much sense.

    • groot says:

      Mcfarlane didn’t co create Spidey,but Kirby did,see the difference?Spidey came from Kirby’s idea for a new hero,Silver Spider,but Lee tweaked the idea around to the Spidey we know today (pleaes read up your comic history,the Marvel artist at those times were creating characters as much as Lee did (the Silver Surfer was created solely by Kirby),and was actually plotting/co-plotting some of the stories with Lee only doing the dialogue.

  4. victor says:

    Good for kirby and his family. Royalty finally given to its family was long overdue. . I’m so happy for the Kirby family. This is what kirby was fighting for during his final years for but didn’t have the strength to keep fighting because of illness. Marvel was wise to settle.

  5. cigar, towelette? says:

    How is Kirby’s work not for hire – as an employee or independent contractor? Kirby’s so-called family have disgraced his memory by ignoring what the original agreement between artists and the studio was. Money whores.

    • mattwkennedy says:

      Actually, having spoken with Jack while he was alive I can attest that his family was continuing a fight that initiated. Jack’s legacy is not now nor has it ever been “disgraced.” Using the fundamental understanding of what the contracts used in the 1950s entailed, Kirby should have been brought in as a partner in every single new usage negotiation. When the former head of the US Copyright office sides with the creator and not the producer, that should mean something. The “money whores,” if there are any, would be the corporations who are raking in cash for characters created by a freelancer who was never properly compensated, and whose deals were initiated without the foresight of how those properties have been monetized over the years via video games and movies. When points are non-specific, the party that did not draft the agreement has the benefit of refuting rights, but this was suspended for Disney and Marvel who have a lot of money to throw around. You, sir, are ignorant to demean the efforts of the party with justice on their side against the behemoth that is a trillion dollar entertainment corporation.

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