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Marvel's Iron Man, Spider-Man & Avengers Rights Lawsuit Explained


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Marvel is filing five lawsuits in an effort to retain the rights to Avengers characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Black Widow. That might seem a bit confusing at first, given that those are all original Marvel characters who’ve been starring in comics for decades and MCU films for years. However, Marvel is actually in a tricky position with its character rights due to some copyright law specifics.

Over the past 13 years, the MCU has become the biggest media franchise on the planet, turning even lesser-known characters like Hawkeye, Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy into household names. A lot of those characters existed long before their turns on the big screen, however, especially bigger names like Spider-Man and Iron Man. Disney’s acquisition of Marvel in 2009 helped spark the franchise’s massive expansion, but those older characters are still subject to the law when it comes to rights and usage.

RELATED: Every Upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie & TV Show In Development

So, why is Marvel at risk of losing some of its biggest characters, and how will its lawsuits help keep them under the company’s umbrella? The answer is complicated, and it involves some longstanding disagreements between comic book creators and the companies they work for. Here’s everything you need to know about Marvel’s character rights lawsuits for Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Avengers.

Why Marvel Is Suing Iron Man, Spider-Man & Avengers Creators

In the coming years, some of the biggest Marvel characters could be lost to the company they’ve belonged to for decades. The reason why is something called termination rights – a provision in copyright law designed to allow creators a heightened level of long-term ownership over the characters and stories they invent. So if an author creates a character and publishes their stories through a company, that company will often hold the usage rights for the character as part of the deal. It differs by genre, era, and author, but it’s not uncommon for the publisher to hold usage rights, even if it’s the creator who made the character. Termination rights allow for creators - or their heirs or estates - to reclaim or renegotiate those rights after a certain amount of time has passed – usually several decades.

For many of the Avengers characters, including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Doctor Strange, that time period is nearly up. In August 2021, the estate of former Marvel creator Steve Ditko – artist and co-creator of the original Spider-Man comics – filed a notice of termination that, if successful, would take effect in June 2023. In other words, if Ditko’s estate is approved, Disney and Marvel could lose the Spider-Man rights in less than two years. Other estates and families of old Marvel writers and artists could file similar notices in the near future, as many other characters are nearing the end of their exclusivity period.

In response to the risk of losing the Avengers, Marvel has filed five lawsuits against the heirs and estates of several notable Marvel creatives, including Ditko, Stan Lee, and Gene Colan. The basis of those lawsuits is that Marvel claims the characters in question were created as work for hire, and are therefore ineligible for rights termination. Many comic book artists and writers of that era worked on contracts that made their creations the intellectual property of the publisher, and Marvel is claiming that because Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the rest were created through these work for hire provisions, their rights can’t be returned to their original creators through termination.

RELATED: Iron Man’s MCU Legacy Was Just Done A Huge Disservice

Disney's History With Copyright Law Explained

Will Marvel be successful in their attempts to retain the rights to Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the other characters in question? If the past is any indication, they at least have a good shot. In 2013, the estate of famed comic book artist and creative Jack Kirby filed a similar claim against Marvel to renegotiate rights to characters including Spider-Man, Hulk, and Thor. Court rulings held that those characters were created as work for hire, meaning that Kirby’s estate had no basis for termination. The case nearly went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but a settlement was reached before things got that far.

Marc Toberoff, the attorney who represented Kirby’s estate in that case, is also representing Ditko’s estate in the current character rights case. Disney is being represented by Dan Petrocelli, who once successfully defended DC Comics’ Superman rights from a termination petition from original creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. That’s all to say that, in the most recent and notable instances, the comic book company has generally won in these sorts of character rights cases. Does that mean Marvel will win again? Not necessarily, but the odds seem strongly in their favor.

And if anyone can win in this instance, it's Disney. The company's impact on copyright law in the United States is infamous, ultimately lending a hand in the duration of copyrights being extended from 14 years to possibly over 100 years. When Mickey Mouse was first created via Steamboat Willie in 1928, the copyright was set to expire in 1984, only for Disney to lobby Congress to radically alter copyright laws, thus pushing the expiration deadline to 2003 and then again through 2023. Now, there are various durations dependent on when a character or story was created, but thanks in large part to Disney, copyrights can last for several decades.

What Marvel's Lawsuit Means For The MCU

The worst-case scenario for Marvel and Disney is that one or more of their lawsuits fail, leading to some of their biggest and most popular characters potentially leaving the MCU. That’s an extreme scenario that, given the past, seems unlikely, but even if Marvel does retain the rights to Avengers like Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, they could still face some major fallout in the form of bad PR. For a long time, comic book creators have railed against the industry for finagling them out of adequate compensation. Because of how most contracts in the industry work, the actual writers and artists who first created the characters of the MCU haven’t seen any part of the franchise’s explosion in popularity.

Disney has already taken a major hit to its reputation in 2021 with the lawsuit leveled against them by Scarlett Johansson. After Black Widow released on Disney+ Premier Access at the same time it premiered in theaters, the star sued Disney for an alleged breach of contract that her team says cost her tens of millions of dollars. The public has sided overwhelmingly with the Johansson in the Black Widow lawsuit and more bad press over keeping rights out of the hands of beloved creators and their families could cause a similar backlash against the company.

There’s a distinct possibility that Marvel could lose some huge characters through termination rights in the coming years, but it’s more likely that out of court settlements will keep the Avengers under Disney’s jurisdiction. The MCU is too massive and too successful for Disney to allow it to be broken up, and there’s no way that individual estates can compete with such a titanic media company in a long legal battle. Nothing is set in stone, however, which means that there could be some big changes coming to the MCU as soon as 2023.

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