A federal judge in New York has ruled in favor of comic book publisher Marvel Worldwide in a dispute over who owns the rights to such popular characters as the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk.
The heirs of comic book artist Jack Kirby sought to assert their rights to such iconic characters in 2009, shortly after Disney announced it would acquire Marvel for $4 billion. Kirby's estate filed 45 notices of copyright termination, seeking to take back rights to characters created from 1958 to 1963, which they claimed were Kirby's creations.
Marvel argued that Kirby's work constituted "work for hire" -- that it was done by a freelance artist, under the direction and control of a company, which therefore retained the rights for such creative works.
"This case is not about whether Jack Kirby or Stan Lee is the real 'creator' of Marvel characters, or whether Kirby (and other freelance artists created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers) were treated 'fairly' by companies that grew rich off their labor," wrote Judge Colleen McMahon. "It is about whether Kirby's work qualifies as work for hire under the Copyright Act of 1909."
McMahon found the Kirby works qualified as works for hire.
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 to the Second Circuit," 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."
Updated: 2:40 p.m.: The Walt Disney Co. issued a statement, applauding the ruling. “We are pleased that in this case, the judge has confirmed Marvel’s ownership rights.”
-- Dawn C. Chmielewski
Photo: Actor Chris Hemsworth as the title character in the movie "Thor," from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment. Credit: Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios