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Marvel Comics Settles with Estate of Jack Kirby, and Includes Creators’ Credit

At the end of September, Marvel Comics announced a settlement of a long-standing copyright dispute with the estate of Jack Kirby, the comic book artist who co-created many iconic superheros, such as Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, and The Incredible Hulk. The settlement was announced a few days before Supreme Court Justices had scheduled a call that was due to discuss whether or not the high court would consider the case. Although the terms of the settlement have not been revealed, The Hollywood Reporter has reported that new issues of Marvel Comics now include a credit line, “Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby” on the back cover.

The settlement represents a tenuous victory for the Kirby estate. In 2009, after Disney reportedly paid $4 billion dollars to purchase Marvel, the Kirby estate issued copyright termination notices on 45 Marvel characters, as permitted under the Copyright Act of 1976. The case bogged down in court, and seemed to be over for the Kirby estate in 2013, when the Second Court of Appeals determined that Kirby’s work was created under a work-for-hire agreement, and that Marvel is considered the statutory owner. The estate of Superman creators, Siegel and Shuster, suffered similar legal setbacks when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 2001 agreement the estate signed with DC Comics was legally binding, negating an earlier ruling from 2008 which reverted copyrights to the estate.

The estates of both Jack Kirby, and of Siegel and Shuster filed a petition to have the Supreme Court overturn the lower court rulings. Their efforts gained traction when amicus briefs were filed by numerous copyright experts and pro-creator organizations, including the Graphic Artists Guild. On October 6, the Supreme Court refused to hear intervene in the copyright dispute, offering no explanation (which is typical in such decisions). While the settlement with the Kirby estate brings some comfort to creators, the lack of a Supreme Court hearing means there still in no clarification on the issues raised by the lower court rulings. As the University of Miami Law Review reported, “The Kirby brief concludes that the lower court’s overly broad interpretation of the “instance-and-expense” test will subject artists’ rights to “revisionist history” and will unjustly deprive them of their property rights by creating an “almost irrebutable presumption that any person who paid another to create a copyrightable work was the statutory ‘author’ under the work-for-hire doctrine. Assuming that someone paid these independent contractors during that time period, it seems that almost no one could benefit from the 1976 Copyright Act’s termination rights provision.”

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