With a few possible exceptions, it’s hard to imagine that most of the creators of wildly popular innovations know that their ideas are going to be a hit when they first put them out into the world. (The inventor of the wheel, on the other hand, probably knew they landed on a winner pretty quickly.) As such, our recent history is littered with stories of creators signing away the rights to their work for little more than a pittance, only to see that creation go on to be worth millions of dollars in the hands of someone else.
Nowhere is that more true than in the earliest days of comic books, where writers churned out characters and stories to be sold to kids for pocket change, only to have many of those characters and stories become the dominant form of entertainment in the twenty-first century. Given that lapse in time, most of those creators didn’t live to see that day, or rather to lament the lost fortune they missed out on. But those creators have heirs, and those heirs are now poised to fight for ownership of their work with the studio built upon the IP they created.
The Hollywood Reporter has the story of how Marvel has filed complaints against the estates of late comic book luminaries like Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and others, seeking to forestall the copyright terminations filed by their representatives seeking to reclaim at least partial ownership. At stake, of course, is the tens of millions of dollars that Marvel would likely have to split with those estates were they to gain some rights over the characters created by writers in the 1960s and1970s.
Where the matter gets complicated for the estates, and where Marvel’s complaints might find purchase in the courts, is the manner in which comic book artists have operated for much of the existence of the medium. Because these writers didn’t have much leverage or power or have any way of knowing what their creations would become, almost all were subject to work-for-hire arrangements with publishers, without ownership of what they came up with. Marvel’s writers and artists also famously worked under the ‘Marvel Method’, which was more collaborative than a single writer toiling away at a story in a solitary office.
It’s these two points that Marvel will hold up as evidence that the respective writers in question can’t be definitively determined as the author under law, and if history is any indication, they stand a decent chance at winning. The estates of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster were unsuccessful in reclaiming ownership of the Man of Steel, and the heirs to Jack Kirby, the man responsible for the titular characters in Marvel’s next blockbuster Eternals, as well as a score of other iconic creations, fell similarly short in their bid to get back any rights to his work. And while those names and the names of other seminal figures of iconic creators are duly recognized by fans for their contributions, it’s a shame that their families aren’t able to reap the financial benefits as the foundation of the biggest movie (and TV) franchise currently going.