Judge Grapples with the Copyright Complexities of Tom Clancy’s Literary Legacy

Steven T. Lowe

On December 9, 2020, Judge Ellen L. Hollander of the U.S. District Court of Maryland issued a lengthy opinion designed to sort out the complex copyright considerations regarding the ownership of Tom Clancy’s literary works, but the decision ultimately did not resolve who owned the Jack Ryan character at the center of Clancy’s books.

Tom Clancy, during his successful and prolific career as an author, penned more than 17 novels, many of which have been adapted into television shows, blockbuster movies, video games, and other media properties. Tom Clancy is perhaps best known for his iconic character, Jack Ryan, introduced in the book “The Hunt for Red October” and appearing in many subsequent books.

When Tom Clancy passed away in 2013, his four children from his first marriage inherited 40% of his estate while his wife Alexandra Clancy and daughter from his second marriage inherited 60% of his estate. However, Tom Clancy had previously assigned the rights to a number of his books to Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Jack Ryan LP (JR entities), which are both partly owned by the author’s first wife, Wanda King. Because of this, questions about ownership regarding certain books and the Jack Ryan character itself presented themselves after his death; Alexandra Clancy sought declarative judgment to resolve the matter.

In deciding the motion for summary judgment, the court determined that the character Jack Ryan first appeared in Tom Clancy’s 1984 book entitled “The Hunt for Red October.” The court then found that Clancy transferred his rights to the JR entities in 1988. Alexandra Clancy argued that the transfer did not include the separate copyright to the character itself. Independent character copyrightability is a rare form of copyright protection generally granted only to well-known, long-running characters that have appeared across multiple works. Alexandra Clancy argued that those rights to the character were retained by her husband and thus remained in the estate.

Despite thoroughly analyzing contractual agreements and additional evidence, the judge held that it remained unclear which party had control of the character. Some provisions of the agreements seemed to support the transfer while other provisions did not. Additionally, the fact that Clancy continued to use the character without paying licensing fees would seem to suggest that he retained ownership of the Jack Ryan character. With no clear answer, the judge denied the motion for summary judgment on this central question.

The judge did determine, however, that Alexandra Clancy was not barred by the statute of limitations, and the opinion noted that exercising “termination rights” to regain the rights to “The Hunt for Red October” had also not been eliminated as an option.

Alexandra Clancy is represented by Norman L. Smith, Paul D. Raschke and Jeffrey E. Nusinov of Nusinov Smith LLP.

Jack Ryan Enterprises and Jack Ryan LP are represented by Scott J. Bornstein and Justin A. MacLean of Greenberg Traurig LLP, and Jerrold A. Thrope of Gordon Feinblatt LLC.

The case is Clancy v. Webb et al., case number 1:17-cv-03371, in the U.S. District Court of Maryland.

* Lowe & Associates (“The Firm”) is an entertainment and business law firm located in Beverly Hills, California. The firm has extensive experience handling cases involving copyright law, having provided top-quality legal services to its clients since 1991. The Firm is recognized for its many achievements, including successfully litigating many high-profile cases.

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