from the protect-artists dept
It’s no secret that we haven’t been huge fans of the termination rights that exist in current copyright law. Not because we don’t want original artists to be able to profit from their own work, of course. Rather, the problems are that copyright is already simply too long, which makes the termination issue far too often not about artists themselves profiting from their work, but rather about their families doing so. Add to that the more salient issue that these termination rights tend to be mostly useful for creating massive messes and disputes between parties over the validity of termination requests and the fact is that this stuff gets really icky really fast.
But, the current reality is that termination rights in the law exist, so there is no reason why creators shouldn’t use that part of the law. You may recall that a decade ago Marvel was hit by a series of termination requests for copyrights on all kinds of superhero stories and characters by Jack Kirby. Kirby’s estate lost in court every step of the way up to the Supreme Court, with Marvel arguing that all of Kirby’s work was work for hire, but Marvel and the estate reached a settlement before SCOTUS could take up the case. For termination requests for work that occurred prior to the Copyright Act of 1976 coming into force, how those requests should be ruled upon is still an open question.
But perhaps we have another shot at getting clarity on this and, what do you know, it concerns Marvel yet again. Another creator has petitioned for termination on some specific copyrights around Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.
In a move that will have copyright lawyers at The Walt Disney Company sweating, the estate of comic book artist Steve Ditko has filed two notice of copyright termination with Disney/Marvel with regard to the copyright for both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. What makes the notice of termination hard to achieve for creators and their families comes down to the classification of how it was created. Marvel will no doubt make the case that Ditko created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange as “Works for Hire,” which would give Marvel the copyright permanently and not entitle the Ditko estate to any compensation. Ditko’s family will make the argument that these creations were made by Ditko and then sold/licensed to Marvel at the time (perhaps under an unfair deal) which would make them not a work for hire creation.
I obviously don’t currently have access to whatever contract was in place between Marvel and Ditko, if one even exists, so I cannot be certain that there wasn’t some work for hire provision within it. But this sure as hell sounds like Jack Kirby all over again. I fully expect Marvel to make the work for hire argument, which will hopefully come along with some kind of written document. If it doesn’t, it seems certain that this will once again end up in the courts. From there, the only question is whether or not we get final answers through the court system, or if this also ends up in a settlement.
As of this writing the notices from the Ditko estate say that the termination will become effective on June 2, 2023 and that for Doctor Strange the termination will become effective on June 9, 2023. Marvel and Disney will no doubt fight these copyright termination notices so look for further updates on this to happen in the coming years (this will almost certainly take a while).
But what is certainly not in question is that cases like this, successful for the original artists or not, throw into sharp relief the contrast between the messaging from Marvel as to the reason for its regular aggressive copyright enforcement — to protect content creators and artists — and Marvel’s willingness to bus-toss those very same artists over copyright should it mean retaining all of that sweet, sweet cash it makes.