Earlier today we reported that the heirs of artist Steve Ditko had filed for copyright termination on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, characters first drawn* by Ditko.

A new report by THR’s Eriq Gardner reveals that this is just the tip of the iceberg of a new round of copyright claims and counterclaims among the heirs of Silver Age creators — and the sole surviving creator, Larry Lieber,  aka Stan Lee’s brother. Lieber is now 89 years old and worked on the earliest comics versions of Thor, Iron Man, and Ant-Man. 

It’s also a new legal war between attorneys Marc Toberoff and Dan Petrocelli, who previously clashed in the epic Superman legal battle and the sequel, Jack Kirby vs Disney. Let’s just say this is the legal equivalent of Ali/Frazier, Omega/Okada, Yankees/Red Sox…pick your sport. Toberoff is representing a variety of heirs, including the Ditko family, Don Rico’s family and Don Heck’s nephew, Keith Detwiller. 

According to Gardner, Marvel has fielded its own lawsuits against these heirs, asking for declaratory relief that characters such as Black Widow, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, and many more were created as works made for hire, and ineligible for copyright termination.

Among the blockbuster revelations in Gardner’s story: Larry Lieber has filed termination notices over his brother Stan Lee’s creations this past May, and one guesses other filings have been made, with Toberoff handling the cases.

THR has posted the Lieber lawsuit here, and it’s pretty straightforward, but some details on the overall case:

Petrocelli is filing several lawsuits in various jurisdictions against Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Patrick Ditko, Don Rico and Keith Dettwiler. The cases will focus on the creation of famous comic book characters and whether they should be deemed as works made for hire. If so, then the publisher would be deemed the statutory author.

The litigation figures to focus on the “Marvel Method,” a loose collaborative working atmosphere where initial ideas were briefly discussed with artists responsible for taking care of the details. The Marvel Method has been the subject of prior litigation such as a dispute a decade back over “Ghost Rider.”

And it will again. For example, one of the complaints filed today (read here) asserts “Marvel had the right to exercise creative control over [Stan Lee’s] contributions and paid [Stan Lee] a per-page rate for his work.”

Although Marvel (and DC) have in recent years made nice with comics creators by paying them $0.00001 on the dollar of the billions made by these superheroes, it appears that with Toberoff entering the chat, the stakes have been ratcheted up much higher.

Although Toberoff hasn’t directly won any of his cases, at one point the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg signaled that she might be interested in taking up the Kirby copyright case. Marvel/Disney settled with the family rather than risk that. Toberoff may not have won in court, but his clients have gotten big settlements, and, looking forward, that will eventually happen here – one hopes.

But if you thought the optics of Disney suing Stan Lee’s brother would have made this a less than picturesque option, you thought wrong. With $22 billion at stake, optics go out the window.

We’ll have more analysis of these legal maneuverings later.

  • Yes, yes, we know that Jack Kirby claimed to have created Spider-Man. We’re just streamlining things for now.



  1. I wish some of these creator heir lawsuits would go in favor of the heirs. Would have been cool if Joanne Siegel (Lois Lane) had ended up owning Superman, and licensed the rights to Alan Moore, Mark Waid and others and see what cool stuff they could make. Removing the restraints of the megacorp overlords might be just the ticket to really awesome comic books and movies.

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