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Marvel owners seek to invalidate Kirby heirs' copyright claims

January 8, 2010 |  2:33 pm

HulkmovieThe battle between Marvel Entertainment and the Jack Kirby estate is bringing out each side’s inner Hulk.

The comic book publisher and movie producer, which was recently acquired by the Walt Disney Co. in a $4-billion deal, has unleashed a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the copyright termination claims made by the heirs to the iconic artist. It's the latest tactic in the fight over profits from some of the most lucrative superhero characters.

The suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan on Friday, against the Kirby heirs is essentially a preemptive strike to halt the Kirby family’s bid to reclaim the characters. It follows a series of letters from Kirby estate attorney Marc Toberoff in September in which his clients notified various copyright holders and licensors of their intent to terminate copyright to a slew of properties at various points in the coming decade (when they will, in the heirs' view, become available). Those properties include The Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, The Avengers and many others from which the movie blockbusters are adapated.

Jack Kirby was a renowned artist instrumental in the creation and shaping of these characters, his family argues, and is thus entitled to profits like any other copyright-holder. Disney has maintained that Kirby’s work was considered for-hire and that his heirs are thus not owed any further profits. 

Like other heirs to 20th century comic book artists, Kirby’s progeny have become more aggressive in seeking to recoup their share of the profits.

The battle could impact Hollywood properties in a number of ways. If the heirs were granted copyright, it could force studios to hand a slice of movie and merchandising profits over to the family (making their tentpole franchises less profitable) or give the heirs a say on how and to whom those properties are licensed; in a worst-case scenario, it could hold up the development process for these films.

Nearly all the properties to which Kirby is seeking to terminate copyright are active Hollywood franchises. Paramount licenses Iron Man, for instance, and will release a new film this spring. Sony is working on a new Spider Man sequel (that may or may not see the light of day in 2011). And Marvel itself is preparing both Thor and Avengers pictures.

Neither Toberoff nor Disney immediately returned calls seeking comment.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: The Incredible Hulk; Credit: Universal Pictures