U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez Thursday granted with prejudice Disney’s motion to dismiss Stan Lee Media’s multibillion-dollar copyright suit against Walt Disney, alleging that they possessed the rights to Marvel characters created by Lee (he is no longer associated with the company).
In an 11-page order, which you can read in its entirety here via Deadline, Martinez wrote of Stan Lee Media, “Plaintiff has tried time and again to claim ownership of those copyrights; the litigation history arising out of the 1998 Agreement stretches over more than a decade and at least six courts,” and barred them from filing similar claims using the 1998 agreement as their basis.
Per the agreement, signed in October of that year, Lee signed over rights to all of the comic book character he had ever created to the company in exchange for stock. A month later, he signed an agreement with Marvel guaranteeing them ownership of the Marvel characters he had co-created during his time with the company.
Lest there be any confusion, it should be noted that Stan Lee did not, by any reasonable estimation, own these characters to sign them over to begin with. Virtually everything done for major comics publishers is done work-for-hire, a practice that Lee was key in implementing during his time as Editor-in-Chief and/or publisher of Marvel, so he knows that very well.
The timeline above, while technically true, could leave someone without a background in the vagaries of comics-industry contracts with the sense that Stan Lee Media somehow got screwed here. He signed the same set of rights over twice, in October and November, it suggests–but really they were two very different agreements. The Marvel contract was merely reaffirming their ownership of things they already owned, in the hopes that signing such a document would prevent Lee or his proxies from suing in the future. What happened is that SLM had him sign a blanket agreement covering everything he ever created (that he had a claim to) and then they tried, ostensibly on his behalf but really for themselves, to make a claim on things that he co-created but did not own.
Such claims, even ones without such dubious behind-the-scenes goings-on, have always turned out in Marvel's favor, with both Blade and Ghost Rider's creators failing to obtain any share of the rights to the characters they created in similar lawsuits.