Marvel, artist’s estate ask for pre-trial wins in superhero copyright fight

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(Reuters) – Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) Co’s Marvel and the estate of artist Steve Ditko both asked a Manhattan federal judge on Friday to hand them a win without waiting for trial in their copyright dispute over rights to superheroes Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

Marvel urged the court to reject the estate’s effort to reclaim Ditko’s interest in the characters, arguing he co-created them on the company’s behalf. Ditko’s estate argued that he developed his heroes and stories independently, and that Marvel intentionally avoided hiring him because of the “dire state of its business” at the time.

Representatives for Marvel and Ditko’s estate did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. Ditko died in 2018.

Under the Copyright Act, a creator can terminate a copyright assignment after decades under certain circumstances. Marvel in 2021 sued Ditko’s estate and several other artists who wrote and illustrated comics in the 1950s, 60s and 70s in response to their bids to terminate copyrights they granted to Marvel related to characters including Iron Man, Ant-Man and Thor.

The termination law does not apply to works made for hire, which Marvel said prevents the artists from recovering the rights. It argued Friday that the case record showed Ditko worked under Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee “subject to Lee’s editorial discretion.”

“Ditko was accorded some creative freedom in how Lee’s story would manifest on paper, but Lee maintained ultimate control over the pages,” Marvel said.

Marvel compared the lawsuit to a similar case it won at a U.S. appeals court in 2013 involving illustrator Jack Kirby (NYSE:KEX). That case was settled in 2014 as the U.S. Supreme Court was set to consider whether to take it up.

Ditko’s estate argued that he was a freelancer for Marvel.

“Ditko, an extremely independent-minded artist, supervised himself, edited his own work, and created the works after little or no discussion with Lee,” it said.

The estate also said Ditko could not have legally created the works on behalf of the Marvel “shell companies” that registered the copyrights, which it called the “Achilles’ heel” of Marvel’s work-for-hire argument.