The heirs of comic book creator Jack Kirby — one of the most legendary names in comics and co-creator of such characters as Captain America, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Thor — have settled a long-running dispute over the rights to the various superhero creations that Kirby helped to formulate during his time working for Timely Comics, which later became Marvel.
In a report from Variety, Kirby’s heirs and Marvel attorneys made a joint statement on the matter, saying, “Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.”
Over the past several years, Kirby’s heirs had sought to terminate grants of copyrights to the plethora of characters he helped create for the publisher, with Marvel making the case that they owned the characters completely since Kirby’s work was “for hire.” After a more aggressive move by the Kirby family in 2009 to seek the termination of grants for 262 works between 1958 and 1963, Marvel sued, forcing the matter to go to court. In 2011, a federal court ruled on the side of Marvel, stating that the very nature of the work as “for hire” give the publisher unquestionable control of the characters Kirby was influential in creating, and when the family appealed, an appellate court upheld the initial decision.
As a result, the family’s legal team led by lawyer Marc Toberoff (who also represented the families of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seeking similar compensatory damages for the Man of Steel) sought to take the Kirby case to the United States Supreme Court, and rallied the support of various creator advocate groups like SAG-AFTRA, as well as a former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, who basically contended that work “for hire” only applied to a company’s employees, not to independent contractors, and that siding with the publishers in these cases overly minimizes the immense part that certain people play in creative endeavors.
Variety‘s senior editor Ted Johnson, the original author of the site’s report on the matter, is also very correct that the ultimate settlement was likely not just in Marvel’s best interest, but in the interests of companies like DC Comics as well as others. “If the Supreme Court had taken the case,” he wrote, “it would have had tremendous implications not just for Marvel, a unit of the Walt Disney Co., but DC Comics as well, as it put into question the definition of what constituted works made “for hire” during the golden age of comics in the 1950s.”
In any event, it’s nice to see Kirby earn the gratitude that he deserves ten times over, but it’s hard not to wonder about what it would have meant for other classic comic book creations had the case made it to the highest court in the land.
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