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‘Ghost Rider’ Rights Dispute May Be Headed to Trial

A federal appellate court has set the stage for a trial over the rights to “Ghost Rider,” reversing a lower court decision that rejected a comicbook author’s claim to the character.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling issued on Tuesday, said that the language of a 1978 agreement between author Gary Friedrich was “ambiguous,” even though Marvel contended that the agreement, made in a form work-for-hire contract, assigned to it renewal term of the “Ghost Rider” copyright.

Friedrich conceived and wrote the first comic book that introduced “Ghost Rider” in 1972. In a 2011 ruling, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest granted summary judgment to Marvel, concluding that the 1978 agreement did assign the copyright and that Friedrich also endorsed checks from the comicbook publisher.

But a three-judge appellate panel said that a jury should decide whether the contract language assigned the rights, noting that the 1978 agreement makes “no explicit reference to renewal rights.” They also found fault with using the 1978 contract to mean that Friedrich’s work on “Ghost Rider” was “for hire,” noting that such a declaration cannot be made in a contract “ex post facto,” or after the fact.

Friedrich has been pursuing the rights to the character since 2004, as plans were in the works for a movie adaptation eventually released in 2007 and starring Nicolas Cage. He had argued that he retained rights because he did some of his work as a freelancer, and that even though he signed over rights to the character, he did not sign over the rights to non-comic book use in films, TV and merchandising. The appellate court also upheld Forrest’s denial of Friedrich’s motion for summary judgment on the question of authorship of “Ghost Rider.”

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