Patrick J. Ditko, nephew of the late Steve Ditko (1927-2018) , has filed two notices of copyright termination with Disney/Marvel with regard to the copyrights of Dr. Strange and Spider-Man. The Copyright Act of 1976, which has a section that allows for creators and even their heirs to regain the rights to a work offering them ‘an opportunity to share in the later economic success of their works’ and ‘to regain the previously granted copyright or copyright rights’.
Marvel’s lawyers are likely to argue that Spider-Man and Dr. Strange were done as work-for-hire. Work-for-hire was customary in comic books at the time. Disney is known to be fiercely zealous in protecting their copyrights; if they are successful in this approach, Ditko’s rights may reduce to zero.
Spider-Man and Dr. Strange
The notices filed by Patrick J. Ditko, nephew of the prolific artist, are specifcially seeking to terminate the copyright on the Spider-Man story from Amazing Fantasy #15 and the Doctor Strange story from Strange Tales #110. Both of these are the official origin stories for both characters but also introduced other major Marvel characters into the canon like The Ancient One, Wong, Aunt May, and Uncle Ben. Wong, for example, played in the MCU by the scene-stealing Benedict Wong, was important in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings for connecting Shang-Chi and his adventures to the rest of the MCU. Fans on social media have discussed the possibility of a best supporting Oscar.
It’s too early to tell if this will delay the release of Dr. Strange 2: In the Multiverse of Madness or Spider-Man: No Way Home. This sort of court case is likely to drag on for years. It’s not impossible that Disney’s lawyers may offer a financial settlement to the Ditko estate, if only to ensure both movies are released on time. At the moment, Dr. Strange 2 is scheduled for a Spring release: March 25, 2022. Spider-Man: No Way Home is due to premiere December 17, 2021. Disney (and all of Hollywood) have experienced multiple delays due to Covid. Further delays would be highly expensive. Losing the rights to Spider-Man and Dr. Strange would be even more expensive, potentially costing Disney billions of future dollars.
Disneys’s lawyers have lobbied Congress in the past to change copyright laws in order to prevent Mickey Mouse from falling into public domain. Disney’s lawyers are likely to take a long-term strategic view rather than risk a legal decicision that could affect their own copyrights, but save millions of dollars in the short term.
The Mouse Hits Back
Disney-owned Marvel is suing relatives of Steve Ditko and other Marvel comics creators to retain control of classic characters, including Iron Man, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Black Widow.
The lawsuits, as covered by The Hollywood Reporter, were filed in New York and California against the heirs of Steve Ditko, Don Rico, Don Heck, and Gene Colan, as well as Stan Lee’s brother and Marvel collaborator Lawrence Lieber. They ask courts to declare that Disney has sole ownership of comics like The Avengers, Iron Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Strange Tales, and Tales of Suspense — including the characters and story elements that have formed the basis for Disney’s lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Termination notices are meant to let creators and their heirs share in publishers’ profits, but Disney is arguing that Marvel paid writers and artists on a work-for-hire basis — meaning that any subsequent rights would be forfeit. “This case thus involves an invalid attempt, by means of termination notices … to acquire certain rights to iconic Marvel comic book characters and stories,” says the suit against Lieber.
This is not a new situation, either. Artists and authors, as well as their families, have fought repeated legal battles for the rights to iconic comics characters, but with only limited success. Disney and the children of Marvel legend Jack Kirby settled a lawsuit in 2014 that saw an appeals court rule in Disney’s favor, concluding that Kirby had worked on a for-hire basis. The same year, an appeals court affirmed DC parent company Warner Bros’ victory over the family of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster. In the Marvel cases, the comic book company has cited its collaborative “Marvel Method” as a defense, saying it makes it difficult to assign ownership of any given character or storyline to a specific author or artist.
The suits following the termination notices sent by Lieber and others are an attempt to head off litigation that might follow from those notices.
Expect to hear more on this from SciFi.radio. This won’t be resolved quickly.
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Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as short stories in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, “Supernatural Colorado”, “Barbarian Crowns”, “Cat Tails””Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.