Wednesday 10 October 2012

Disney sued for rights to comic book heroes

The Avengers:
the fastest film to gross $1 billion
Spider Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers: these heroes are among the best known comic book characters of all time. They were created by the comic book great, Stan Lee, and have recently become stars of Disney films which have collectively generated box office receipts in excess of $3 billion

On Monday Colorado company Stan Lee Media Inc. filed a claim against the Walt Disney Company in the District Court of Colorado, alleging that Disney has no right to the characters. Stan Lee Media claims that:
"Defendant The Walt Disney Company has represented to the public that it, in fact, owns the copyright to these characters as well as to hundreds of other characters created by Stan Lee. Those representations made to the public by The Walt Disney Company are false. The true facts are that Stan Lee Media, Inc. owns the copyrights to Stan Lee's creations. Accordingly, Plaintiff Stan Lee Media, Inc. is entitled to the billions of dollars of profits that have been kept by Defendant Disney."

According to the claim, Stan Lee assigned copyright to all Marvel properties and characters to Stan Lee Media Inc. in October 1998, before assigning them to Marvel Enterprises Inc. one month later.
Stan Lee Media Inc. says:

"Oddly, in November, 1998, Stan Lee signed a written agreement with Marvel Enterprises, Inc. in which he purportedly assigned to Marvel the rights to the Characters. However, Lee no longer owned those rights since they had been assigned to SLEI previously. Accordingly, the Marvel agreement actually assigned nothing."
Stan Lee Media Inc. is seeking damages of $5.5 billion for copyright infringement stemming from Disney's use of the characters in films (some of which are produced by Sony and Universal) drawing box office receipts of $3.5 billion and other merchandising (including the Broadway show "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark") amounting to an estimated revenue of $2 billion.

One consideration to bear in mind: Stan Lee Media Inc. has previously made a similar claim against Stan Lee himself and that case was dismissed last July on the basis of res judicata which prevents further lawsuits on similar claims that were previously raised. That ruling is currently on appeal.

This blogger does not understand why cases like this one arise in a country which provides for registration of copyright. If each party had diligently recorded their rights, and any assignment of those rights, it would be very clear who now owns the copyright. This isn't something that we are used to in respect of copyright the UK, however the issue is relevant to trade marks. Owners often do not want to take the time or spend the money to record assignments of rights, but as this case demonstrates it is in their own interests to do so.

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