According to yesterday’s ruling, the Walt Disney Company no longer has to worry about whether or not they actually do own the rights to the Marvel characters created by Stan Lee, at least according to a federal judge today. U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez Thursday granted with prejudice Disney’s motion to dismiss Stan Lee Media’s multibillion-dollar lawsuit superhero copyright suit. He wrote an eleven page order in which he went out of his way to clarify his irritation with SLMI, who has “tried time and again to claim ownership of those copyrights; the litigation history arising out of the 1998 Agreement stretches over more than a decade and at least six courts.” In other words, “Guys – guys, uh – you can stop now. Guys?”
This latest attempt started in mid-October 2012 when SLMI filed a copyright infringement complaint, going after the $5.5 billion in profits it said that Disney made from Marvel superhero movies and merchandise based on characters created by Lee. SLMI claimed that Lee, who no longer has anything to do with the company with his name, signed over the rights to comic book characters like Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Spider-Man and many more that he created or would create to its corporate predecessor in October 1998 for shares in the company.
The problem is that in November 1998, Lee signed an agreement with Marvel Comics handing over the rights to the same characters – so one or the other happened, but not both, and SLMI’s claim is apparently pretty thin. In late November 2012, Disney, who purchased Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, filed its motion to dismiss, calling the lawsuit is “completely frivolous.”
Judge Martinez sided with Disney on this, and wanted to make it absolutely clear to SLMI that “over” means “over”.
“Taking its cue from the Southern District of New York and the Central District of California, this Court holds that Plaintiff is precluded from re-litigating the issue of its ownership of copyrights based on the 1998 Agreement, which issue was decided against it,” he wrote in his judgment. The ramifications for Stan Lee Media are profound, as most of their money comes from licensing characters the court has now declared once and for all that they don’t actually own.
It’s important to understand, by the way, that Stan the Man hasn’t had anything to do with Stan Lee Media International since 1998. The company carries his name, but that’s it – and apparently that’s really it now, because nearly all their business was based on character licensing – character licensing that they apparently do not actually possess, according to this latest ruling. This is probably why they were fighting so hard to keep control of the characters. Their entire business model depends on their claim being valid. Oops.
Here’s the complete judgment. It’s interesting reading, and a fascinating peek into copyright law at the highest levels:
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