Marvel Resolves Last Remaining Copyright Dispute with Ex-Artist Steve Ditko

Marvel Resolves Last Remaining Copyright Dispute with Ex-Artist Steve Ditko

 

On December 7, 2023, Marvel Studios resolved its last copyright case with a group of writers and artists in a New York district court. The late artist Steve Ditko, who died in 2018, was the final artist involved in this dispute. Since September 2021, Ditko’s estate had been in this legal battle with Marvel over the copyright ownership of characters and story elements in many comic books featuring Ditko’s artwork. In this context, an ‘estate’ refers to the descendants who inherit ownership of property left behind after a person’s death.

Ditki is best known for being the co-creator of Spider-Man and creator of Doctor Strange. Some of Ditko’s works noted in this suit includes characters and story elements of multiple comic books including “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Amazing Fantasy,” “Journey Into Mystery” and “Strange Tales.”

The legal dispute arose when artists and their estates issued termination letters on the copyright rights of various works created by these artists. The U.S. Copyright Office permits termination letters as a method for authors to reclaim their copyright rights in certain situations. This right to terminate was introduced as part of the Copyright Act of 1976. It enables artists to end a prior agreement granting the use of their copyrighted work to someone else and regain control of those rights for another period of time. In response to the termination letters, Marvel Studios filed five lawsuits in New York federal court to invalidate the letters by asserting that the works were “made for hire.” 

A work “made for hire” is a work created either by an employee as part of their job or by someone hired by a company to create a work. When a work is considered a “made for hire” work, the hiring party or company is considered the author of the work and the owner of the copyright. For instance, think of things like creating a work that is part of a motion picture, translating a book, or adding supplemental illustrations to someone else’s work, like charts or tables. 

This last dispute with Ditko’s estate comes after Marvel had settled with other writers and artists, such as Lawrence D. Lieber. Many of the Marvel comics listed in the termination letters are the original stories behind some of Marvel’s most iconic characters, thanks to how they’ve been portrayed in the Marvel movies, known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. 

The end of this case comes with both parties stating they have “amicably resolved their dispute” and plan to file a dismissal within a month and a half. However, neither Marvel nor Ditko’s estate has given any specific details about the agreement they’ve reached. One can only guess how many millions of dollars changed hands.

Marvel is represented by Daniel M. Petrocelli, Molly M. Lens, Matthew Kaiser, Allen W. Burton and Danielle Feuer of O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Ditko is represented by Marc Toberoff of Toberoff & Associates PC.

The case is Marvel Characters Inc. v. Ditko, case number 1:21-cv-07957, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

* Lowe & Associates (“The Firm”) is a boutique 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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