The Marvel Cinematic Universe is without question the biggest movie franchise in existence. With over 25 films that have achieved massive blockbuster status, Disney is quite pleased with their acquisition of Marvel over ten years ago. Maintaining this stock of comic book characters, however, has not been easy for Disney and Marvel Studios.
The movies of Marvel Studios have featured various heroes from a variety of different creators as Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan. The heirs to these characters, however, have taken objections to how Disney is using them for their films and television series. The problem concerns copyright termination and how Disney wants to get around this aspect by suing for the largest gain. Failure to do so will mean that Disney will have to pay more for the rights to use characters such as Iron Man and Spider-Man for their films.
If this news sounds familiar, you may recall a similar fight over rights in 2019. After the major box office success of 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home”, Disney attempted to renegotiate the rights with Sony. Sony has owned the rights to Spider-Man and all its adjacent characters since the late-1990s and they’re determined not to let go.
It’s why Disney decided to reach a deal where they would share the rights. Sony could still make Spider-Man movies but would also be able to use characters from Marvel Studios and their cinematic universe. Disney could also use Spider-Man for their feature films, as with the character’s appearances in “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War”.
After “Far From Home” became the first Spider-Man film to reach $1 billion at the worldwide box office, Disney decided they wanted more. They wanted roughly half of the profits from Sony on their Spider-Man movies, far more than the amounts Sony was paying before. Sony decided not to go ahead with the deal and initially split with Disney. That deal would soon be renegotiated that same year and the Marvel Studios deal with Sony was back on again.
However, what should be noted is the issue of copyright and how this problem could have been avoided. In 1998, Disney lobbied to extend copyright law so that intellectual properties would not go into the public domain so easily. Had Disney not done so, Spider-Man would have entered into the public domain on January 1st, 2019, the very same year when Disney and Sony were squabbling over ownership and percentages.
Now we’re once more back to copyright arguments as Disney attempts to sue the creators for more ownership of their characters. The heirs are relying on Marc Toberoff as their legal representative. Toberoff is most famously known for the other case of comic book copyright when he was hired by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster for how DC would treat the character.
Toberoff was not successful, however, in warding off DC on the topic of copyright termination. In another instance of deja vu, Disney will be represented by Dan Petrocelli, the same lawyer who worked for DC on the same grounds of copyright termination.
This latest lawsuit started back in August. The administrator for the estate of Steve Ditko filed a notice of termination for Spider-Man, an original creation of Ditko since its inception in 1962. This was well within the legal law of copyright as authors or their heirs have the opportunity to reclaim rights previously granted to publishers after waiting a statutory set period of time. Without this claim, Marvel would hold the rights to Spider-Man until 2057. With this notice of termination, however, Marvel would have to give up the rights in June 2023.
Under the current framework of films, this would not hinder the plans of Disney. Disney’s plans with Sony for Spider-Man have only been contracted up to “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, debuting this year. Sony, however, has a vested interest in maintaining these rights considering that Spider-Man is their only flagship comic book franchise for films.
Sony currently has plans to release “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”, “Mobius”, and “Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse 2” in the comic year, not counting “No Way Home”. Future plans for more films could be derailed by this.
This is not the first time that ownership of comic book characters in the realm of Marvel. Toberoff previously represented the estate of Jack Kirby in 2013 with a case regarding copyright grants to Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and The Mighty Thor.
The argument against Kirby’s estate was that he had little ownership for contributing his materials as a work made for hire. However, once the case grew big enough that it nearly went to the Supreme Court, Marvel decided to settle. The current case could go this far.
So what does this case mean for the future of Marvel movies? It probably won’t mean the end of Marvel Studios ever using the likes of Spider-Man. Even if the case doesn’t go in their favor, Disney and Sony could still negotiate a means of sharing the characters with a co-ownership where royalties would have to be paid.
This is more likely with Disney considering they were content with sharing the box office for Spider-Man movies being Sony products yet playing within the Marvel Cinematic Universe sandbox for a small percentage. Considering Disney walked back on a deal where they would have made half a billion dollars from a Spider-Man film they would have to directly produce, it’s likely that the giant corporation will suck it up and strike a deal for co-ownership to the rights of various Marvel characters.
All of that, however, ultimately depends on which way the trial goes. As stated previously, these copyright trials and deals can go either way. Remember, there was a point in 2019 where everyone thought that Spider-Man would no longer have a role in the MCU and then learned it would happen again after a deal was struck weeks later. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of money involved in these Marvel movies, and the estates of the creators want to make sure they’re not getting swindled on the usage of their characters.