One of comics’ most contentious rights cases just drew to an unexpected close as Marvel and the estate of legendary comics artist Jack Kirby announced a settlement to the ongoing legal battle. At issue were the rights and profits of Kirby’s creations he produced while working for Marvel, which includes much of the original Avengers lineup, along with wonderful cosmic oddities like The Eternals.
Jack Kirby died in 1994, but his surviving relatives have argued that – like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster before him – the often Draconian contracts governing creators rights in the ’50s and ’60s were often predatory, paying actual creators a pittance and allowing publishers to rake in billions from subsequent works like film, television, and toys.
Marvel (and parent company Disney) have been doing their best in the courts to assert that Kirby’s creations were simply work-for-hire during his time at the publisher, and that the prolific artist wasn’t owed either his original artwork or the billions which Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios have generated off of the backs of his creations. There’s actually a lot of complicated feelings and bad blood about the relationship between Kirby, Marvel, and then-Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee and who exactly created what.
Kirby was, in fact, working under a work-for-hire contract while at Marvel (creator-owned comics weren’t really a thing back then), with the 2nd Court of Appeals abiding by the strict guidelines of that contract and finding that Marvel and not Kirby should be the creator (and therefore benefactor) of Kirby’s work. He would leave Marvel in the early ’70s for DC, where he created the New Gods and didn’t get to draw Superman (which would have been great).
With briefs from intellectual property veterans adding some weight to the Kirby case, the dispute was headed to the Supreme Court, which made the settlement between the two parties kind of a big surprise. A finding for the Kirby family could have had huge ramifications on intellectual property rights in the past and going forward, calling into question the validity of work-for-hire contracts. That doesn’t feel like the kind of case that a massive company like Disney would want to risk losing.
In a joint statement from the Kirby estate and Marvel, both sides are making nice (for now): “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.”
The Hollywood Reporter brings up a good point about what will happen with Kirby’s original art which the publisher has been holding on to for decades. Whether this means the Kirbys will be getting a cut of past or future profits remains to be seen.
What do you make of this settlement? Let us know in the comments below.
[HT: The Hollywood Reporter]