Comic books have become the source material for most of our summer blockbusters, their inventive worlds consumed by the film industry Galactus to slake its hunger for profitable material. Their expansion to the big screen, along with forays into the worlds of television, video games, and other media, have turned superhero franchises into financial juggernauts. If the proliferation of comic book conventions is any indication, there are countless nerds breathlessly waiting to hand over their money to the Marvels and DCs of the world for a glimpse at Batman v. Superman, the Avengers v. Ultron, or the X-Men v. diminishing returns. And after years of dispute over a copyright lawsuit, an industry legend’s estate may be getting its due.
Marvel has settled its lawsuit with the family of Jack Kirby, the longtime comic book artist and writer credited as a co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and numerous others. The suit originated when the Kirby estate sent termination notices in 2009 to Marvel as well as licensees Sony, Fox, and Universal over the use of characters created by Kirby in films and other properties. Marvel took the matter to court to have the notices declared invalid. In a ruling that was later upheld by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Kirby’s creations were declared to be “work made for hire,” which would make Marvel the statutory author and strip the Kirby estate of its ability to assert its rights to the work.
Though the Kirby estate petitioned to have the case heard by the Supreme Court, the matter seemed to be dead. But in true superhero fashion, help soon arrived. The petition gained traction with the submission of amicus briefs on behalf of the Kirby estate authored by former director of the US Patent and Trademark Office Bruce Feldman, writing on behalf of himself as well as former US register of copyrights Ralph Oman, the Artists Rights Society, the International Intellectual Property Institute, and a brief from comic book historian Mark Evanier and Kirby historian John Morrow. The response of Disney, Marvel’s parent company, had been that Kirby was paid by the page for his work under the direction of Marvel’s editor Stan Lee. However, three days before the case was to go before the Supreme Court, the two sides reached a settlement. In a joint statement, both parties announced that "Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby's significant role in Marvel's history."
You may not have the next great idea for a comic book hero, but whatever your endeavor, you need to ensure you own the IP rights to your work. Contractors, employees, and employers need to have written agreements for any work that is created. After all, an ironclad contract is the best defense this side of Captain America’s shield.