Comic book publisher Marvel Worldwide Inc. has won a federal court ruling in a dispute over the rights to such popular characters as the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk.
The heirs of comic book artist Jack Kirby had sought to assert their rights to the characters in 2009, shortly after the Walt Disney Co. announced it would acquire Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.
Kirby's estate wanted control over the characters they said he created from 1958 to 1963, under a provision of copyright law that allows creators to revoke rights granted to corporations after a certain number of years.
But Marvel argued in legal documents that his illustrations constituted "work for hire" — that the comic book covers and artwork he drew were created under the direct supervision of Marvel and its famous editor, Stan Lee. It was Lee who generated the plot or synopsis from which an artist created pencil drawings, according to court documents.
It's a key distinction. An author of a copyrighted work hired by a company on a "work for hire" basis is not entitled under copyright law to revoke the rights he grants to the company, said Rusty Weiss, an entertainment lawyer with the Los Angeles office of Morrison & Foerster.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon agreed with the publisher's argument that Kirby's creations were works for hire.
"This case is not about whether Jack Kirby or Stan Lee is the real 'creator' of Marvel characters," McMahon wrote in her judgment. It was also, she wrote, not about whether artists in Kirby's situation "were treated 'fairly' by companies that grew rich off their labor."
"It is about whether Kirby's work qualifies as work for hire under the Copyright Act of 1909." She ruled that it did.
Kirby was Lee's most famous collaborator until they became estranged over issues of creative credit, artwork custody and money. Indeed, comic book historians consider the duo the equivalent of the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
The illustrator reportedly contributed mightily to the plots and character creation, according to published accounts of Mark Evanier, who was Kirby's assistant and later his biographer.
Marc Toberoff, an attorney representing the Kirby family, vowed to appeal the ruling.
"We respectfully disagree with the court's ruling and intend to appeal this matter," Toberoff said. "Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. We knew when we took this on that it would not be an easy fight given various arcane and contradictory 'work for hire' decisions under the 1909 Copyright Act."
Disney issued a statement applauding the judge's decision. It said, "We are pleased that in this case, the judge has confirmed Marvel's ownership rights."