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Court rules in favor of Marvel in Kirby heirs case

Last week the Southern District Court of New York ruled against heirs of Jack Kirby in their suit to reclaim copyright for many of Marvel’s best known characters. The Comics Journal has a great piece on the differences between this case and the Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster cases against DC Comics:

Some legal observers were expecting Marvel to be the second major comics-publisher domino to fall when Toberoff filed on behalf of the Kirbys, but there is a key difference between Kirby’s comics work and Siegel’s: It was well established that Superman already existed as a full-blown character concept before Siegel and Joe Shuster pitched him to DC, whereas Kirby, who died in 1994, did most if not all of his Marvel work on assignment from the publisher. In the case of work for hire, the Copyright Act defines the instigating employer/publisher as the Author of the work.

Clearly very conscious of recent editorials and letters in The New York Times expressing outrage at the way that Kirby had been shut out of the massive profits being reaped by Marvel/Disney, McMahon tried to distance herself from that controversy. At the outset of her ruling, she noted, “This case is not about whether Kirby (and other freelance artists who created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers) were treated ‘fairly’ by companies that grew rich off the fruit of their labor. It is about whether Kirby’s work qualifies as work-for-hire … If it does, then Marvel owns the copyright in the Kirby works, whether that is ‘fair’ or not. If it does not, then the Kirby Heirs have a statutory right to take back those copyrights, no matter the impact on a recent corporate acquisition or on earnings from blockbuster movies made and yet to be made.”

Community Comments

#1 Gerry Mooney
August/2/2011
@ 2:13 pm

It may be legal, but it’s not moral. How hard could it be to simply acknowledge the artist who gave these characters life? I know the corporations think of it as the floodgates opening, but treating someone fairly with a fraction of the billions being made would buy them a lot of goodwill. A shame that corporations that peddle wholesome family entertainment feel the need to be such pricks.

#2 Stephen Beals
August/2/2011
@ 2:43 pm

I wish I wasn’t surprised at the ruling. Growing up, I got to hear about creator after creator being screwed over by the whole “work for hire” setup. But Jack Kirby’s story is particularly painful. He was an easy person to look up to, not just for his endless creativity, but as a human being.

I think it’s because of what people like Jack went through that the climate dramatically changed. At least there’s that.

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