The Jack Kirby Estate finally found a settlement from the comic industry giant by not backing down...three days before presenting the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It's a historic moment for Marvel in the Jack Kirby estate lawsuit. The comic giant blinked right before heading to the Supreme Court on Sept 29 and settled the lawsuit with creator’s estate.
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Kirby created and worked on hundreds of Marvel characters but never received residuals due to the 1909 Copyright Act. The act entitled Marvel to all rights instead of the creator. Kirby's estate didn't agree.
So the estate sued the comic company for what The Nerdist calls "Draconian contracts governing creators’ rights in the ’50s and ’60s" that "were often predatory, paying actual creators a pittance and allowing publishers to rake in billions” without contributing to the artistic format. Considering the high profits of the superhero movie genre, there's a valid concern. Look at money earned this year from Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier alone.
And Marvel's work-for-hire defense has worked in the court system thus far after arguing the "prolific artist wasn’t owed either his original artwork or the billions which Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios have generated off of the backs of his creations." The Los Angeles Times reports after the $4 billion purchase of the company by Disney, the estate really started to focus on the lack of creator control and credit.
And that lack of being owed money for personal artwork is a concern for many current artists. And at the time, created a lot of contention between Kirby, Marvel, and former Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee.
Lee often takes credit for the characters created under his reign because of the copyright law in the '50s and '60s—which regulated all efforts to the main company. And the artist later moved to rival DC Comics. The Times does mention the artist returned for a two-year run at the end of the 70s.
The Hollywood Reporter mentioned how the “Marvel method” didn’t designate any one person as a creator; instead the company retained all rights to property. By not providing creator rights or residuals, companies found it easy to create a high profit margin without sharing any of the money.
Originally, the legal ruling was found in favor of Marvel, but the estate wasn't satisfied with the decision.
Instead termination notices were sent to Marvel, Sony, Fox, and Universal in an effort to claim proprietary rights over the creations raking in cash and breaking records. Movies like Spider-Man (both the 2000 series and recent reboot films), Iron Man, Captain America, and X-Men all featured characters that Kirby worked on.
Marvel didn't agree and considered the notices to be a nuisance and invalid.
And it wasn't until after intellectual property advocates and legal counsel started to study the suit and weigh in, momentum for a resolution built up quickly.
THR revealed the Kirby estate settled with Marvel for an undisclosed amount. The parties released a joint statement, saying: "Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby's significant role in Marvel's history."
But not all is happy in the land of intellectual property rights.
IP lawyers and creators were watching the case closely, hoping for a ruling that clearly defined the rights of company, industry, and creator. According to the Reporter, "the case represented the balance of power between creative contributors on one side and studios who manage production and distribute works on the other" while defining "how to interpret who is an ‘employer’ under the 1909 Copyright Act" when ruling on important cases.
Kirby’s not the only creator (or estate) looking to reclaim rights; but unlike previous attempts, the merit against Marvel held with a high chance of winning. Marvel seemingly flinched at the last moment, while claiming the lawsuit was the wrong vehicle to mandate an answer for such a defining case.
The L.A. Times also notes that Kirby’s 16-year-old granddaughter Jillian has used the reputation and respect Jack earned by creating Kirby4Heroes, a donation venture meant to help the hopeless in the comic creator circle. The paper highlights the fact that the charitable venture feeds into the Heroes Initiate, a nonprofit organization that helps comic book creators in need, including financial support when life goes from a comedy to a tragedy.
In essence, the comic creator community become those they create. A defining court case with a judgment toward the artists would offer a lot more stability and credit for those toiling over the effort and receiving very little compensation.
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While no answers will come from this case, the Kirby case will not remain more than a historical footnote but helps the next case. Each little victory and acknowledgement means creators are earning rights while the court system remains slow to adapt. And the chance to hold the art created and making money outside of the company.