Marvel, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, has filed lawsuits against the heirs of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and others, in an effort to avoid losing copyright control over iconic characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and many others. The Hollywood Reporter says Marvel is seeking a ruling that the characters were created as work-for-hire, and are thus not eligible for copyright termination.
The dispute began in August when Ditko's estate filed a notice of termination on Spider-Man, which Ditko co-created with Stan Lee. US copyright law says authors or their heirs can reclaim the rights to their creations after a specific period of time, which in this case would have expired in June 2023. Others, including Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man co-creator Larry Lieber and Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Wonder Man co-creator Don Heck, have filed termination notices of their own.
Marvel's claim is that each of the creators in question were employees of the company, and therefore do not actually hold any ownership in the characters they made. The lawsuit against Lieber, for instance, says that he was employed as a writer by Marvel, and that the contributions he made to character creation "were at Marvel's instance and expense."
"Marvel editorial staff had the right to exercise creative control over Lieber's contributions, and Marvel paid Lieber a per-page rate for his contributions," the suit states, "When Lieber worked for Marvel, he did so with the expectation that Marvel would pay him. Lieber did not obtain any ownership interest in or to any contributions he made."
Marvel's lawsuit also notes that a similar claim filed by the estate of Jack Kirby in 2009 was denied in a summary judgment in favor of Marvel, as was an appeal to the Second Circuit. That doesn't necessarily set an iron-clad precedent, however: The Kirby estate petitioned the US Supreme Court to review the case, but then withdrew the petition after reaching a settlement with Marvel. Interestingly, the lawyer representing the Kirby estate in that case, Marc Toberoff, is also representing the families of the comic book creators in these claims.
The odds may be long, but there's a lot of money on the table thanks to the runaway success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has helped open the door to new superhero videogames including Marvel's Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. If Marvel loses it will have to share—something large corporations are generally loath to do. It is thus seeking a declaration from the courts that the copyright termination notices are valid, and is also seeking legal expenses and whatever else the court feels like awarding it.