The inspiration certainly came from the success the Estate of Jerry Siegel experienced in regards to reclaiming the copyright for Superman from DC Comics/Warner Brothers. The timing certainly has a lot to do with Marvel’s purchase by Disney for $4 Billion.
Last week, the heirs of legendary comic artist Jack Kirby sent notices of copyright termination to 45 entities, including Marvel, Disney, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures.
Copyright law states that creators or families of said creators can regain copyrights assigned to companies 56 years after first publication.
This means that the Kirby heir’s claims would become active in 2017 for the Fantastic Four, 2018 for the Hulk, and 2019 for the X-Men and Avengers.
The list of movie studios that were sent notices include one interesting entry–Sony Pictures.
Disney was sent one because the now own Marvel. Universal holds the rights to the Hulk, 20th Century Fox holds the rights to the Fantastic Four and X-Men, so their inclusion is understandable. And Paramount has an agreement to distribute Marvel Studios films, so their addition makes sense as well.
Sony, however, holds the rights to Spider-Man, one of the few characters recognized as not being co-created by Kirby. The artist was tapped to work on an early version of the concept that was rumored not to be to Stan Lee’s liking. Lee instead went with artist Steve Ditko on the concept. Perhaps the heirs feel that enough elements of that early story conference survived into the final product that Kirby should be listed as co-creator on that character as well.
This move raises a lot of interesting questions. Stan Lee is recognized as co-creator on many of these properties and he is still alive. Will he sue for his share of the copyright? Has his previous contracts with Marvel included a clause for this circumstance? And if Kirby and Lee have equal rights to the copyright, what happens if the Kirbys don’t allow Marvel use of their copyrights and Lee does?
Another interesting issue would be about the rights to the character Thor. Thor, as you may know, is a character from Norse mythology and therefore in the public domain. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a version of the mythogical warrior for the Marvel universe. So, can Kirby stake claim to the copyright of the Norse god of thunder or not?
Certain cynics may say that this is a ploy to get a quick settlement from Disney so that it will just go away and the purchase of Marvel will go smoother. After all, you can declare your intention to retain your rights upto 10 years before they become due. That the Kirby heirs could have made their intentions known as early as 2007. Yet at that time, Kirby’s daughter Lisa was working with Marvel to bring one for her father’s unpublished concepts, Jack Kirby’s Galactic Bounty Hunters, to life through Marvel’s Icon imprint.
However, even with the success found by the Siegel Estate in their claims to Superman, this might not be an easy road for the Kirbys, as hinted by this statement from Disney:
“The notices involved are an attempt to terminate rights seven to 10 years from now and involve claims that were fully considered in the acquisition.”
Disney is know as a tenacious defender of the rights to their character, even going so far as suing a series of day care centers that had Disney characters painted on their walls. This could be a long and protracted legal battle for both sides.
More on this story as it develops.