Marvel Comics and the estate of creative icon Steve Ditko have finally reached a settlement regarding the ownership of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and many other superheroes Ditko co-created.

Steve Ditko illustrating his approach to Spidey

According to Deadline, after over two years in court, the legal teams of Disney and Ditko’s estate ended their battle over the rights of some of Marvel’s classic superheroes. The court paperwork was filed on December 6, 2023, and an official announcement will likely follow in the coming weeks.

In 2021, Ditko’s nephew, Patrick Ditko, filed a notice with the United States Copyright Office to terminate Marvel Entertainment’s rights to both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Ditko’s estate used the Copyright Act of 1976 which allows artists and their inheritors to revoke the license of intellectual property after many years, and to take back the rights of characters. While Disney could still own Spider-Man and Doctor Strange if it had lost in court, the company would have to pay the characters’ co-owners.

But there’s a catch, this right only applies if a property was transferred to the current owner. To understand this, we start with the US introducing the idea of “work for hire” as a legal concept in the 20th century. This meant a corporation can be the author of a work, not the people who did the work. If the characters were created under a “work for hire” deal, then the company would be entitled to the rights and the creator cannot terminate its ownership. So, Ditko’s estate would have to prove that Spider-Man and Doctor Strange weren’t original Marvel property, but instead ones that were given to Marvel by Ditko as a license.

Ditko introduces the modular Iron Man armor used today

The details of Disney and Ditko’s settlement still remain shrouded in mystery, like Ditko himself. However, despite the confidential nature of the court case, a trusted source stated that the agreement was beneficial to all parties involved.

Represented by aggressive copyright attorney Marc Toberoff, the Ditko estate in 2021 had sought termination notices on the rights to such creations as Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Iron Man. Other artists’ families and heirs also challenged the rights to characters created by their family members. Ditko, Stan Lee, Don Rico (read that complaint here), Don Heck, Gene Colan, and the still living brother of Stan, Larry Lieber. Those disputes were resolved earlier this year.

According to Marvel: “Any contributions Steve Ditko made to the Works were done at Marvel’s expense, because Marvel paid Steve Ditko a per-page rate for his contributions. Steve Ditko made those contributions to the Works with the expectation that Marvel would pay him, and Steve Ditko did not obtain any ownership interest in or to his contributions.” So said Marvel’s high-priced outside counsel Daniel Petrocelli to the estate of the famed Spider-Man artist in one of five complaints for declaratory relief filed in federal court in California and New York.

Steve also co-created many of Spider-Man’s villains

However, Marvel/Disney decided to settle. As in previous settlements and resolutions that Disney/Marvel have reached with the likes of the Jack Kirby estate and others, the settlement with the Ditko estate is confidential. However, a well-positioned source says that all sides are “very satisfied” with the outcome. According to IP lawyers, these settlements are often of the form: “we will give you x amount of money now, and you will never, ever, ask for more.” The dispute was financial, since Steve Ditko receives credit on books, TV shows, movies, etc. since the 1960s.

Disney bought Marvel in 2009 and gives them a certain amount of freedom, but they are legally controlled by Disney. Steve Ditko was a private person and there is little known about him other than his artwork. He died at age 90 in 2018. This is his obituary in England, since Marvel has a global fan-base. There are only a handful of photos taken of Steve, here are two.

David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.