Who Owns Spiderman?
In 1998, Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman and other iconic comic book characters, contracted with his own company, Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. (the predecessor company to Stan Lee Media, Inc., also known as SLMI). Lee assigned to the company the rights to all of the characters he had worked on while working for Marvel. In 2001, Lee pulled back his intellectual property rights, alleging material breach against SLMI. This was while Marvel was making movies from Lee’s characters, including the X-Men and Iron Man. In 2007, SLMI began asserting ownership rights. A series of lawsuits followed, with the fundamental question: Who Owns Spiderman?
And Iron Man, and the X-Men, etc.
According to the January 2015 IP Update, SLMI filed numerous lawsuits. In 2009, when Disney acquired Marvel, Disney became the object of these cases.
Finally, in 2014, the Tenth Circuit ruled that SLMI had never asserted ownership and had never produced anything containing the characters at issue, whereas Marvel did. In Stan Lee Media, Inc. vs. The Walt Disney Corporation, USCA, Tenth Circuit, December 23, 2014, the court dismissed SLMI’s case, and said that SLMI had not owned a valid copyright and, therefore, the case was dismissed.
On its face, the case looks a bit like a contract/employment dispute. Who was Stan Lee working for? It seems as if Lee created a company but did not really work for it, at least not in the beginning. Instead, he was working for Marvel. I doubt that SLMI was turning a profit at the time.
By 2001, Lee disassociated himself from a company named after him. But it wasn’t until six years later that SLMI got on the stick and started asserting rights in the characters and trying for a share of the profits.
The issue of ownership is the crucial one. That includes the assertion (or not) of copyright. While the corporate relationships are a little hard to follow, one thing is clear. SLMI had a chance to assert copyright any time it witnessed Marvel, and then successor corporation Disney, prepare and sell any sort of media with the disputed characters. Yet they didn’t do so until six years had elapsed.
The court applied what was essentially a utilitarian theory. The maximization of benefits was to allow the original content creator, Stan Lee, to sell his intellectual property as he saw fit. And, when he pulled back his rights, while SLMI had had ample opportunity to object then, the company did not. Furthering the utilitarian maximization of benefits theory is the fact that SLMI never created or sold anything with the characters in dispute. Copyright doesn’t exist to just bring suit; it exists to protect an intellectual property owner who is sharing with and presenting to the public.
” the theory [is] that copyrights have a special place in the law and are to be used for informational and entertainment purposes, not just for lawsuits.”
It would seem that the only way that SLMI wanted to utilize Spiderman and the other copyrights was as a lawsuit battering ram against Lee and Marvel (and, later, Disney). That’s hardly in line with the maximized benefit theory of utilitarianism.
Presumably, the matter is now resolved, but SLMI has gone jurisdiction shopping before. It’s possible that this lawsuit, or its near-twin, will show up in another circuit soon. But if that happens, I predict another dismissal, based on both precedent and utilitarianism. The webslinger will finally catch a break.