Marvel Sues to Maintain Copyrights to Avengers and Spider-Man

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Marvel has become one of the most dominant forces in Hollywood on the strength of their incredible library of characters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is home to Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, Doctor Strange, and the rest of the Avengers. It’s the reason that Disney spent billions to buy the company in 2009, and why Marvel Studios has now become synonymous with summer blockbusters.

But a new lawsuit could have a major impact on exactly who controls those characters. As detailed by The Hollywood Reporter, Marvel has filed suit against the heirs of “some late comic book geniuses including Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan” and follows moves made by those heirs to terminate Disney/Marvel’s copyright on their famous creations (including Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Black Widow, and more) under a provision in copyright law that allows authors to “reclaim rights once granted to publishers after waiting a statutory set period of time.” Marvel’s suits aims to prove that these characters are not eligible for copyright termination because they were made as “work for hire.”

If you’re not familiar with that term: Back in the days when Lee, Ditko, and the rest of Marvel’s writers and artists were creating all of these iconic heroes, they did for the company as freelancers doing “work for hire” — which means under the law that their employer (Marvel in this case) is the legal creator of their work, not the creators. In other words, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko may have technically created Spider-Man, but they don’t own him, because they did it as work for hire from Marvel. And so while Marvel has made literally billions of dollars from Spider-Man, Lee and Ditko saw a tiny fraction of that money. Hence these sorts of lawsuits.

Marvel’s total control of Spider-Man and his moneymaking power may be legal (and when these sorts of legal battles have occurred in the past, both Marvel and DC — who hold similar control of “work for hire” creations like Superman and Batman — have tended to win them in court) but that doesn’t necessarily make it right from an ethical perspective. If you created a billion dollar character, I’m sure you would want to receive a fair percentage of that money in return. “If Marvel loses,” THR writes, “Disney would have to share ownership of characters worth billions.”

We’ll see what happens next; whether the case proceeds in court or if the sides reach some sort of settlement to avoid a public conflict. But this could potentially become the biggest struggle the Avengers have been a part of since the Infinity War.

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