They thought they’d won it but now Marvel will have to defend itself again over who owns Ghost Rider. A federal appeals court today overturned a 2011 ruling in Marvel’s favor which means former freelancer Gary Friedrich can take his copyright case to trial. “We conclude that the district court erred in granting summary judgment because the Agreement is ambiguous and there are genuine disputes of material fact regarding the parties’ intent to assign renewal rights in that Agreement, the timeliness of Friedrich’s ownership claim, and the authorship of the work,” wrote Judge Danny Chin in a ruling (read it here) from the Second Court of Appeals today. Friedrich, who came up with the original idea for the Ghost Rider character back in 1972, first filed his suit against Marvel, Columbia Tri-Star, Relativity Media and more back in 2007 claiming that he owned the renewal term copyrights on the character and his origin story. The initial suit was filed the same year the first Ghost Rider movie starring Nicolas Cage came out. Not that everything is clear in Friedrich’s favor from today’s ruling. “We agree with the district court that there are genuine disputes of material fact that preclude granting summary judgment on the issue of authorship,” said the ruling as it also rejected the plaintiff’s motion today.
Marvel never disputed that Friedrich had played a part in creating Ghost Rider but claimed it was a collaborative process that brought the character to the comic pages and that the writer had assigned any rights he may have had in signing a work-for-hire agreement in 1978. Friedrich never wrote anything again for Marvel after that. Under copyright law, Friedrich would have acquired the renewal right in 2001 but neither he nor Marvel made any attempt to enter into a new agreement. Marvel later argued it didn’t believe it had to, though it did send the writer royalty checks in 2005 for some reprints after his attorney contacted the company. Two years later he sued. In December 2011, just as a Ghost Rider sequel was about to be released, Judge Katherine Forrest found in Marvel and the other defendants’ favor. Friedrich appealed and the case was argued in late February. Everyone now finds themselves almost back at Square One.
The question is now is will this actually go to trial or be settled?