Disney and Creators Fight over Comic Book Copyrights

Disney is engaged in litigation with the owners and estates of creators of iconic comic book characters.

The dispute involves a little-known part of US copyright law called “copyright termination.”

As the US Copyright Office explains,

The Copyright Act permits authors or their heirs, under certain circumstances, to terminate the exclusive or nonexclusive grant of a transfer or license of an author’s copyright in a work or of any right under a copyright. These termination provisions are set forth in 17 USC §§ 203, 304(c), and 304(d), with the applicable provision depending on a number of factors, including when the grant was made, who executed it, and when copyright was originally secured for the work. These provisions are intended to protect authors and their heirs against unremunerative agreements by giving them an opportunity to share in the later economic success of their works by allowing authors or their heirs, during particular periods of time long after the original grant, to regain the previously granted copyright or copyright rights.

The origins of this law lie in concerns over the estate of Charles Dickens. The author’s works were widely copied during his lifetime and afterward – without authorization, but often legally as the laws existed at the time.

As Copy this Book! explains,

In England, at the turn of the last century, Parliament was so embarrassed by the specter of Charles Dickens’s grandchildren going hungry that it provided for all authors’ copyrights to revert from publishers to their heirs 25 years after their deaths. …

The US also has a scheme (actually three) that enables authors to get their copyrights back, even if they initially signed them away in blood in front of 20 genuflecting bishops.

For works created after 1978, a transfer of copyright in the US can be terminated after 35 years. For example, Victor Willis (who was the policeman in the group the Village People) recovered his copyright to the hit song YMCA – a reported favorite of former President Trump.

Disney – which has made billions from its versions of folktales and pre-existing intellectual property – is no stranger to termination lawsuits.

In 2006, the family of Solomon Linda, who composed the original tune for the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” settled a lawsuit with Disney in which they’d claimed $1.6 million in damages. The song plays a prominent part in Disney’s movie and stage versions of The Lion King.

Linda composed the song in 1939 and recorded it, then sold the copyright for a pittance.

The current copyright dispute involves Marvel characters like Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. Disney acquired Marvel and its intellectual property in 2009 for $4 billion.

A major issue in the dispute is whether the writers and artists who created the original comics were employees (in which case their employers owned the copyrights from the start, under the doctrine of “works made for hire”) or whether they were freelancers who assigned their copyrights (in which case termination of copyright may apply).

According to a lawyer for some of the plaintiffs, as quoted in the New York Times,

At the time all these characters were created, their material was definitely not ‘work made for hire’ under the law. These guys were all freelancers or independent contractors, working piecemeal for car fare out of their basements.

Categories: Copyright