EXCLUSIVE: Intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff has a winning track record when he goes after Hollywood studios on behalf of rightsholders. But not today. I’ve just learned that he lost big in Federal Court for the Southern District Of New York after suing Disney/Marvel for the Jack Kirby Estate. The federal judge not only granted the studio motions for summary judgment but also denied the Toberoff/Kirby’s cross-motion for summary judgment. The ruling revolved around the fact that Kirby was a freelance writer and did work-for-hire and so didn’t retain the copyright. Well, you win some and you lose some. But all the Hollywood studios are chortling because they now see Toberoff as vulnerable and not invincible. “This is just the beginning,” Toberoff just told me, noting that, after the Kirby Estate exercised their termination rights under the Copyright Act, Marvel (backed by Disney) was in the middle of settlement negotiations in December 2009 and sued the Kirbys on January 8, 2010 in NY to benefit from that state’s more favorable work-for-hire case law. UPDATE: The
Walt Disney Companyissued this statement regarding the Marvel Worldwide Inc. v. Kirby ruling: “We are pleased that in this case, the judge has confirmed Marvel’s ownership rights.”
Specifically, the estate of comic book superhero legend Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk, The Silver Surfer and Thor, sent notices terminating copyright to publishers Marvel and Disney, as well as film studios that have made movies and TV shows based on characters he created or co-created, including Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. Normally these kinds of lawsuits are run of the mill for Hollywood. But not when they’re litigated by Toberoff, who is the bane of Big Media.
He’s had so many victories they’re hard to count, and Toberoff has won or settled lawsuits on Lassie, Get Smart, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Wild Wild West, and Smallville. In the comic book arena on behalf of Superman creator Jerry Seigel against DC Comics against Warner Bros, the U.S. District Court Judge ruled that “after 70 years, Jerome Siegel’s heirs regain what he granted so long ago — the copyright in the Superman material that was published in Action Comics, Vol. 1. What remains is an apportionment of profits, guided in some measure by the rulings contained in this Order, and a trial on whether to include the profits generated by DC Comics’ corporate sibling’s exploitation of the Superman.”
Like that case, Kirby’s estate is looking to regain his share of copyright in the characters and their use in comics and other media. Think about it: like Siegel who sold the rights to the action hero he created with Joseph Shuster to Detective Comics for $130, the Kirby estate could have received a big wad of Marvel characters cash. The irony is that Disney CEO Bob Iger’s ties to Marvel go back two generations to Kirby himself. That’s because Iger’s late great-uncle (his grandfather’s brother) was illustrator/cartoonist Jerry Iger, who partnered with illustrator/cartoonist Will Eisner back in the 1930s to create the comic book packager Eisner & Iger Studios. And their first hire was Jack Kirby, who as you know later became the co-creator of many of Marvel’s best known characters with then Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee. Lee, meanwhile, has been supportive of the Disney/Marvel deal (though he is fighting lawsuits of his own on other fronts.)