A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Stan Lee and Marvel Entertainment, the latest chapter in the tangled history of disputes over the rights to comic characters like “Spider-Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.”
Jose Abadin and Christopher Belland, two shareholders of Stan Lee Media, had charged that Lee improperly transferred rights to his creations from the company to Marvel in 1998.
In the lawsuit’s original incarnation, filed in January, 2009, the plaintiffs had sought $750 million in profits from films made from pics like “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man” and “X-Men.” At the time, their then-attorney Martin Garbus said the suit was aimed at reclaiming money for all of Stan Lee Media’s shareholders.
In a ruling issued on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Crotty rejected the suit, in part because Abadin and Belland did not acquire their shares in the company until 1999, a year after the transfer of Lee’s properties to Marvel. Moreover, he noted that securities claims against Lee already were settled, and Abadin and Belland were part of that class.
He also rejected their copyright claims, citing the statute of limitations. He noted that a “lifetime” agreement that Lee signed with Stan Lee Media was in violation of California labor laws limiting such pacts to seven years.
“Furthermore, a fair reading of the amended complaint suggests that Lee has been using his own characters since at least 1999. Plaintiffs cannot wait a decade to enforce their rights,” Crotty wrote.
He expressed frustration with the litigation itself, noting related suits have been before the Colorado Supreme Court, a California federal court and the company’s bankruptcy proceeding. “It is now time to call a halt,” he wrote.
But it is hardly the end of the dispute over the rights to the characters. Earlier this month, the children of Jack Kirby sued Marvel, now oened by the Walt Disney Co., in their efforts to regain control over the characters he created or co-created, sometimes along with Lee, including “Hulk,” “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man” and “X-Men.”
Lee was one of the founders of Stan Lee Media, an online comic site, but the company went into bankruptcy in 2001. Some of its execs were later arrested on charges of manipulating its stock price, and the company’s demise triggered a rash of court actions. Lee had denied that he had assigned copyright interests to his characters over to Stan Lee Media.