Disney has sued the families of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and other creators of some of its most iconic characters this week, hoping to block legal efforts by the artists and writers’ estates that would seek to acknowledge them as, well…the creators of some of the most iconic comic book characters of all time.
This is per THR, which reports that Marvel owner Disney has launched the suits to challenge copyright termination notices that have been, or might soon be, submitted by the estates in question. Notably, the heirs of Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko recently filed one such suit, which would hypothetically, per U.S. copyright law, allow creators who have transferred their copyright to a second party—like, say, a multi-billion-dollar megacorp that’s spent decades profiting mightily off of those same materials—to terminate that transfer after a sufficient amount of time has passed.
This question, which has been raging in the comics community for decades itself at this point, and which has been at the core of previous lawsuits featuring the families of Jack Kirby and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, comes down to whether the creators of these extremely profitable characters ever owned them in the first place. The corporate position has always been that this kind of work qualifies as “work for hire,” the copyright for which belongs to the people who issued the order to go out and make an infinitely profitable superhero, and not the actual artists or writers who merely invented the character, designed their costumes, or wrote their dialogue.
These latest legal complaints (which also fold in a suit from Larry Lieber, co-creator of Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man, and younger brother of Stan Lee) are expected to put much of their focus on the “Marvel Method” that created much of the company’s output in the 1960s, a system that saw writers hand plot synopses to artists, who then plotted the entirety of a comics’ story on paper, before handing it back to the writer for dialogue.
THR notes that, even if Marvel loses these cases, it’s likely to maintain at least partial ownership of its copyrights. But given that the characters in question—Ditko co-creations Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, especially, who form the center of the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home—are huge parts of the company’s billion-dollar film and comic book offerings, we can presumably expect the corporation to bring every massive legal weapon it has to bear on these complaints.