Marvel ramps up its Sony lawsuits

Spidey action seeks over $10 million in damages

HOLLYWOOD — Marvel mounted a new attack on its estranged partner Sony by filing a lawsuit Friday against consumer electronics arm Sony Electronics.

The tortious interference suit, filed in L.A. Superior Court, alleges that Sony Electronics has refused to license Spider-Man for use on its consumer electronic products and that it instructed its sister company, Sony Pictures, not to license Spider-Man to any of Sony Electronics’ competitors. As a result, it interfered with the limited partnership between Marvel and Sony Pictures. Suit seeks in excess of $10 million in damages.

Marvel attorney Carole Handler said, “We brought this complaint because Sony Electronics directly interfered with a very important area of merchandising for young children.”

Radio silence

Complaint outlines Spider-Man’s merchandising success in everything from theme-park rides to children’s apparel, with the glaring exception of novelty electronics items such as radios and portable CD players. Suit points out that Marvel’s agreement with Sony is unique in that they created a joint venture to exploit Spider-Man; Marvel usually controls its own merchandising and shares royalties with the studio.

According to the complaint, Sony Pictures has exclusive say over the licensing of the film “Spider-Man” in the consumer electronics industry. As for “classic Spider-Man,” Sony Pictures must give its consent before Marvel can market in the consumer electronics industry, which Sony has never done, Marvel says.

Not game for adaptations

Suit also charges that Sony has rejected proposals from competing electronics manufacturers, including Emerson Radio. Given the enormous popularity of Spider-Man, the refusal to license the character for video and computer games clearly harms both Sony and Marvel. The refusal, Marvel charges, stems from Sony Electronics’ desire to protect its own competitive position and its inflated retail pricing structure.

In April, Marvel filed a $50 million lawsuit against Sony Pictures claiming that Sony hijacked Spidey by doing everything in its power to dissociate Marvel from the character in the minds of retailers. Sony filed a countersuit alleging that Marvel is using the litigation to force an unjustified renegotiation of its agreement with Sony. It claims that Marvel cannot have the license agreement rescinded and that Marvel has breached the agreement by improper accounting on merchandising and by favoring its own merchandise over the joint venture because it has a more favorable deal on non-movie items.

The case has since been sent to a reference before a retired judge, pending an appeal by Marvel.

Marvel has had seven consecutive No. 1 film openings with its characters, but Spider-Man remains its crown jewel. This season, Fox’s “X2” and Universal’s “The Hulk” had huge opening weekends, but they did not come close to breaking box office records set by Sony’s “Spider-Man” in 2002. The sequel is planned for 2004. “Hulk,” which had an opening weekend of $62 million, dropped 70% in its second week and is viewed as a disappointment.