In a battle for the superheroes, a federal complaint alleging copyright infringement was filed on October 9, 2012, in the United States Federal District Court for the District of Colorado by a company called Stan Lee Media. The company was started by Stan Lee with his friend Peter Paul, who is now serving time in prison for fraudulent activities regarding this company. Lee wisely pulled out of the company over a decade ago when it failed. According to the complaint, Lee signed over the rights to his famed superheroes to the company Stan Lee Media.
Now, Stan Lee Media has filed a lawsuit against The Walt Disney Company for their production of movies and memorabilia that star Marvel characters such as Spider Man, Captain America and The Avengers. Although The Walt Disney Company has put out many movies based on these super heroes and have also licensed them to other studies to use, the complaint states that the Marvel characters movie audiences have come to know and love are not legally Disney’s to use.
According to the complaint, Disney has generated billions of dollars in profit, and has misled the public into believing that they own the copyrights to the Marvel characters. Stan Lee Media asserts that this is a falsity and they in fact own the rights to the beloved super heroes and are asking for compensation in the billions price range. The lawsuit focuses on the blockbuster movies like “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “X-Men” which Disney has licensed to other movie studios.
Comic book creator and fore-runner Stan Lee created many of these well-known characters years ago. Stan Lee Media claims that in October of 1998, Stan Lee himself assigned all the copyrights to his characters, both current and any future ones, to a company called Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. This arrangement was documented with a written agreement that was signed by a representative for Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. and Lee. Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. was later renamed Stan Lee Media, who now claim they hold the rights to the characters by and through that original agreement.
However, just a month later in November of 1988, Lee supposedly signed another written agreement, this time with Marvel Enterprises, Inc. in which Lee assigned the copyrights to Marvel. It is the contention of Stan Lee Media, that Lee no longer had the authority to convey his copyrights and other interests in November 1988 because he had already signed over all rights to them.
In December 2009, Disney bought the characters from Marvel Enterprises, which Stan Lee Media unsurprisingly claims Marvel had no right to sell in the first place. In addition, they state that neither Disney nor Marvel has filed the agreement with the United States Copyright Office.
Surprisingly, this is not the first allegation from Stan Lee Media. Over the past 10 years or so, there have been a few litigations involving Stan Lee Media, which took place in Colorado, New York and California. This history shows a litigious company that has a rather questionable track record in the eyes of the judicial system.
The litigation in Colorado was from 2007-2011, and alleged that Stan Lee Media and its shareholders should be released from the stronghold of the prior management. In May 2010, a Colorado court rules that there would be a new board of directors, which would act as Stan Lee Media’s legal representation. The ruling was appealed by the prior management, and denied by the court.
The New York litigation was filed by Stan Lee Media again Marvel Entertainment and Stan Lee. A New York judge ruled that Stan Lee Media did not have enough standing to make their claims of ownership, but the ruling was eventually dismissed.
The California litigation started in February of 2001, and dealt with the prior management filing for bankruptcy. According to Stan Lee Media, the prior management company filed for bankruptcy yet failed to notify its shareholder so that they may protect their investments. In January 2007, Lee added to the lawsuit as a shareholder, seeking property rights. In 2011, the original case, Lee’s and other shareholder’s cases were consolidated into one, with Stan Lee Media acting as the legal representative. The cases were later dismissed.
In the official complaint filed by Stan Lee Media regarding Disney, 4 out of the 10 pages document the prior litigations between Stan Lee Media, the prior management company, the shareholders and Lee. Stan Lee Media claims that though their history is sordid, none of these prior rulings pertain to this new case and should not limit this copyright complaint.
In related cases, Stan Lee Media actually sued Marvel Enterprises in 2007 for the sum of 5 billion dollars. Stan Lee Media claimed that they owned the rights to all the characters created by Lee. The case was dismissed by a judge, so they filed another lawsuit in 2009, which was later dismissed in 2010. In 2011, Stan Lee Media tried to sue Paradox Entertainment for producing the movie “Conan.” Once again, a judge dismissed the claim in 2012.
So where does that leave Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk? Stan Lee Media is suing Walt Disney Studios over the same thing they tried to sue Marvel for in earlier cases. Right now, Disney claims that they have the rights to the characters due to an agreement they have with Marvel Enterprises. Stan Lee Media, of course, claims otherwise. They assert that since no rights were ever transferred to Disney, Disney legally has no right to the said characters. However, if the past cases are any indication, Stan Lee Media has a very slim chance of taking down a powerhouse like Disney.
History suggests that in all likelihood this latest foray into the judicial process by Stan Lee Media will wind up with the case being dismissed. Of course, it also seems save to assume that regardless of what may happen in this law suit against Disney, we have almost certainly not heard the last of Stan Lee Media.