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Comics artist Jack Kirby's children move to reclaim character rights from Disney, Marvel, studios

September 20, 2009 |  5:40 pm

JackKirby

Walt Disney Co. may not end up with full ownership of many of Marvel Entertainment's most famous super-heroes if new copyright claims by the children of the late artist Jack Kirby prove successful.

The four children of Kirby, who co-created a number of Marvel's best-known super-heroes, including the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor and the Hulk, have served so-called notices of copyright termination for 45 characters to Marvel Entertainment, Disney (which recently agreed to buy Marvel for $4 billion), Sony Pictures (which owns movie rights to Spider-Man), 20th Century Fox (owner of movie rights to the Fantastic Four and X-Men), Paramount Pictures (which has a film distribution deal for four upcoming Marvel-produced films) and Universal Pictures (which has distribution rights to Hulk movies).

The filings came just a week after Disney unveiled its $4-billion agreement to purchase Marvel but were in the works before that deal was announced.

The children of Kirby, who died in 1994, are being represented by Los Angeles law firm Toberoff & Associates, which has represented Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in a similar claim against Warner Bros.

Kirby, who is widely considered to be one of the most influential comic book artists of all time, served as penciler and a co-plotter with writer Stan Lee on most of the Marvel characters in question. If Marvel, Disney or any of the other companies challenge his claims, it may be a complex legal process to determine what exact role Kirby played as creator or co-creator of various characters who first appeared nearly 50 years ago.

While Lee, who has also been Marvel's editor in chief, has been a public face of the company for decades, Kirby is less well known publicly despite the fact that he worked closely with Lee on many of the publisher's best-known characters. That's in part because Kirby left to work for competitor DC Comics in 1970.

Under copyright law, creators and co-creators can seek to regain copyrights they previously assigned to a company 56 years after first publication and can give notice of their intentions to do so up to 10 years before that.

Kirby's children would be eligible to claim their father's share of the copyright of the Fantastic Four in 2017, while the Hulk would come up in 2018 and X-Men in 2019. The copyrights would then run for 39 more years before expiring, after which the characters would enter the public domain under current law.

A representative for Marvel declined to comment. A Disney spokesperson said, "The notices involved are an attempt to terminate rights seven to 10 years from now and involve claims that were fully considered in the acquisition."

Should their claims stand, the Kirby children could choose to assign their portion of the rights to current copyright holders for a fee or sell them to a new licensee. The actions could possibly benefit Disney if the Kirby children were to take movie rights to Spider-Man or the X-Men, currently held in perpetuity by Sony and Fox, respectively, and sell them to Disney, for instance.

Kirby also co-created Captain America, for whom Marvel is currently preparing a new film, but the patriotic super-hero first appeared in 1941, so he is not currently eligible for such a copyright claim.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: Cover of Fantastic Four No. 50, from May 1966, illustrated by Jack Kirby.

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