The heirs of comic book artist Jack Kirby have served 45 notices of transfer of copyright to Marvel, Disney, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures and other companies that own or control characters he helped create.
The characters affected are the ones Kirby helped create for Marvel Comics back in the 1960s, such as the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Hulk, X-Men and more.
The notices were filed by Toberoff and Associates, a law firm that represents the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in a similar claim that took back Siegel’s share of the copyright to the first Superman story in 1938′s Action Comics #1.
Under U.S. law, a transfer of copyright can be terminated by the original copyright holder, their heirs or estate after the original copyright term expires. Under those terms, the rights to Fantastic Four ‘ the comic book series that launched the Marvel Universe of superheroes ‘ could be reclaimed in 2017.
The efforts to reclaim the rights comes just weeks after Disney reached a deal to purchase Marvel.
Key to the claims will be the question of whether Kirby’s contributions to the comics constitute work made for hire as an employee of the company who created comics for Marvel, or whether he worked as an independent contractor who created copyrighted work that he sold to Marvel. Revisions to copyright law in 1976 clearly defined work made for hire, but the status of work done prior to that will likely be up to the court to decide.
Most of Kirby’s work for Marvel was done in collaboration with Stan Lee, who wrote dialog for the comics and edited the Marvel line as a company employee. Kirby left Marvel in the 1970s in a dispute over credit and compensation, working a stint at DC Comics and in animation before retiring in the 1980s. A previous legal dispute with Marvel over the return of Kirby’s original artwork was settled in the late 1980s.
Kirby died in 1994, but many of his creations have gone on to be the basis of the most popular movies of the 21st century.
In a statement, Disney stated that ‘the notices involved are an attempt to terminate rights 7 to 10 years from now, and involve claims that were fully considered in the acquisition.’
Spokesmen for Marvel and the other studios that received notice had no comment for the media.