Marvel Sues to Block Heirs From Reclaiming Spider-Man, Doctor Strange Copyrights

Marvel filed four lawsuits on Friday seeking to block comic book creators and their heirs from seizing control of copyrights to such major characters as Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

The move comes after heirs of several Marvel authors filed dozens of termination notices with the U.S. Copyright Office, seeking to end Marvel’s licenses to the characters.

In the lawsuits, Marvel argues that the characters were created under “work for hire” arrangements, and that the heirs have no valid claim to the copyrights.

Marvel points to a key case involving Jack Kirby, who co-created “The X-Men,” “Thor” and “Iron Man.” In that case, Kirby’s heirs sought to reclaim copyright to his creations, but the federal courts sided with Marvel, finding that the characters were made under work-for-hire arrangements.

Marvel’s lawyers, led by Daniel Petrocelli, say these cases present “virtually identical circumstances.”

Marvel filed suit against Lawrence D. Lieber, Patrick S. Ditko, Michelle Hart-Rico and Buz Donato Rico III, and Keith A. Dettwiler.

Ditko is the brother of Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Other termination notices were also filed by the children of Gene Colan, Nanci Solo and Erik Colan, on Aug. 26.

Under the Copyright Act 1976, heirs are permitted, in certain circumstances, to terminate the grant of a license or transfer to a copyrighted work — such as a comic book — via a properly executed notice.

Patrick S. Ditko’s notice of termination pertains to the first appearances of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, in 1962 and 1963 respectively. His termination notice gives Marvel an end date of June 2023.

Nanci Solo and Erik Colan have given notice of termination to Marvel regarding dozens of comic books, including “Marvel Super-Heroes” Volume 1, #12, which features the first appearance of Captain Marvel and dozens of early editions of the “Captain America” comics, in which Falcon first appears.

There has been ongoing debate about how comic creators have been unfairly remunerated in light of the cinematic juggernauts their creations inspired.

When Ditko died in 2018, reports suggested his estate was worth only $1.3 million, despite having co-created one of the most famous comic book characters in the world.

It is a practice that continues to this day. Ed Brubaker, who created many of the storylines used in “Captain America: Civil War” — including the character of “The Winter Soldier,” played by Sebastian Stan on screen — spoke earlier this year about how he was treated by Marvel, both in terms of additional compensation (which he suggested was so paltry as to be insulting) and at the film’s premiere, where he was forced to watch in an “overflow” theater as opposed to the one with the film’s cast and Marvel executives.

“I have made more on SAG residuals than I have made on creating the character, for my one line that got cut,” he reportedly told Kevin Smith on his “Fatman Beyond” podcast.

However, comic creators have faced an uphill fight trying to reclaim copyrights. In 2012, a federal court ruled that Superman co-creator Joe Shuster’s sister could not terminate Warner Bros.’ copyright grant in the character due to a 1992 agreement between the studio and Shuster’s heirs, which prevented them from pursuing termination.

The exact nature of how Ditko’s and Colan’s heirs’ attempts to terminate will play out will similarly rest on what agreements they — and their predecessors — may have made with Marvel and whether those supersede the Copyright Act.

A rep for Patrick S. Ditko said the family wouldn’t be commenting. A spokesperson for Marvel did not respond to a request for comment.

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