The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make a decision soon on whether it will hear a dispute between Marvel and the heirs of comic book legend Jack Kirby in a case that could impact the ownership of major Marvel-Disney properties including Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and many more. Now, the case is getting some major backing from some of Hollywood’s most powerful creative guilds: SAG-AFTRA, the DGA, and the WGA.
The dispute revolves around Kirby’s key contribution to some of Marvel’s biggest properties and the 1976 Copyright Act. While the 1976 Copyright Act extended the terms of copyright, it also crafted a termination provision that was meant to give authors the opportunity to reclaim their properties in the latter years of a copyright term. This was seen as a compromise: On one hand, the copyright terms were longer, but authors also had the chance to earn back their properties at a later date in case they had sold their rights when they were new to the industry and lacked bargaining power.
The situation grows complex in the Kirby case when it comes to the artist’s official contribution to the popular Marvel properties. Although Kirby co-created many of the characters and superheroes, Kirby has been deemed a “work for hire” who created “commissioned work” for statutory author Marvel. That means that Kirby, who passed away in 1994, never had any termination rights under the 1976 Copyright Act.