When Disney announced its acquisition of Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion last month, there was talk of the studio eventually reigning in all film rights to Marvel characters.
But now there’s a potential obstacle in the way of that plan, as the children of legendary comic artist Jack Kirby are looking to regain the copyrights on 45 of their father’s Marvel creations over the next decade.
The family of the late comic book artist Jack Kirby are seeking to terminate copyright claims on the many Marvel Comics heroes he co-created with writer Stan Lee.
Kirby died in 1994 and now four of his children have served 45 notices of termination to regain the rights to several characters.
The notices have been served on Marvel, Disney, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures.
Surprisingly, this legal action has nothing to do with the Disney acquisition and was in the works before that deal was announced.
Marvel is making movies featuring such heroes as "Iron Man," "Hulk," "Thor," "Captain America," "Avengers" and "Ant-Man" but it doesn't own the rights to all of its comic book characters. During tough times in the 90s, Marvel had sold off "Spider-Man" and "Ghost Rider" to Sony; "X-Men," "Fantastic Four" and "Daredevil" to Fox; and "Namor the Sub-Mariner" to Universal. Paramount and Universal also have distribution rights for some Marvel-produced films.
The Kirby estate is being represented by Los Angeles law firm Toberoff & Associates, which has represented the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in a similar claim against Warner Bros and DC Comics.
The Los Angles Times says that under copyright law, creators can seek to regain copyrights they previously assigned to a company 56 years after first publication and can give notice of their intentions up to 10 years before that.
Kirby's children would be eligible to claim their father's portion of the copyright of the "Fantastic Four" in 2017; the "Hulk" would come up in 2018 and "X-Men" in 2019. The copyrights would then run for 39 more years.
A representative for Marvel declined to comment. A Disney spokesperson said: "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."
If the Kirby family is successful, the current rights holders would have to pay them a licensing fee to continue making films with the characters. Alternatively, the heirs could sell the rights to another studio.
Jack Kirby battled Marvel for years over the return of the physical artwork to his comics, and was asked to sign documents that would have irrevocable and specifically signed away rights to the characters, something he refused to do.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg, Jack Kirby is considered the most influential superhero comic artist in the world, though he also worked for decades in romance, war and science-fiction comics. His DC work also provided much of the backbone for the recent blockbuster series Final Crisis from DC.
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Sources: The Geek Files, LA Times, NY Times, MTV News, BleedingCool