A battle between high-powered lawyers is looming over the legal rights to some of Marvel's best-known characters, including Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, and Black Widow. Disney, owner of Marvel Entertainment, has filed lawsuits in a bid to retain full control of the characters, the Guardian reports. The suits were filed in response to copyright-termination claims filed by the heirs of several writers and artists and by Larry Lieber, younger brother of Stan Lee. Lieber, 89, co-created Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Thor. A clause in American copyright law allows creators or their heirs to reclaim rights after a number of years, under certain conditions.
The cases of the creators and their heirs are being handled by prominent intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff, while Disney is being represented by Daniel Petrocelli, described by the New York Times as a "high-powered Los Angeles litigator." The main legal issues involved is whether the creations were "work made-for-hire," which Petrocelli says would make the characters wholly Marvel's property and invalidate the copyright claims. Toberoff, however, argues that at the time the characters were created, the artists and writers weren't "traditional, full-time employees" and their material was definitely not ‘work made for hire’ under the law."
"These guys were all freelancers or independent contractors, working piecemeal for car fare out of their basements, selling by the page those pages a publisher liked," Toberoff says, per EW. His clients include the estate of artist and writer Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. In a similar case that ended with a settlement in 2014, Toberoff represented the heirs of Jack Kirby, co-creator of characters including Captain America and the Incredible Hulk. Toberoff tells the Times that he "regretted not righting the legal injustice to creators" at the time and hopes to do so now. If his clients win, they will receive a portion of the profits from any future creations involving the characters. (Read more Marvel Comics stories.)