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Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment last year for quite a chunk of change. One of the most important assets of Marvel is its superhero collection, many of which were developed by Jack Kirby who has since passed away. The heirs of Kirby sent out a notice of copyright termination under Section 304(c) of the Copyright Act to both Marvel and Disney to have the copyrights in their father’s work revert to them. The Copyright Act permits the heirs to terminate the copyrights effective 56 years after the establishment of the copyright – which apparently occurred between 1958 and 1963 when the comics were originally published. On the west coast, Kirby’s children have asked the court for a declaratory judgment acknowledging the validity of the termination notices, spelling out the profit sharing going forward on any co-owned works, the return of their father’s original artwork, and to give their father credit for the movies based on his creations (The Incredible Hulk and X-Men Origins) in the case of Kirby v. Marvel, et. al. SACV10-00289 CJC (C.D. Cal. 2010). On the east coast, in the case of Marvel v. Kirby, 2010-cv-141, (S.D. NY 2010), Marvel is suing the heirs to have the notices declared invalid. Although Marvel claims that its relationship with Jack Kirby was a “work-for-hire,” the heirs allege that Kirby worked out of his home without a written agreement. If this is true, the relationship was most definitely not a work for hire situation. A work-for-hire requires either an actual employment relationship or a written agreement transferring the ownership in works created by an independent contractor. Since Marvel could have easily disposed of both cases by presenting a copy of such a written agreement or proof of employment, one can assume that they are unable to document their position. Since I can’t imagine that Disney was unaware of the ability of Kirby’s heirs to terminate the copyright, my guess is that as a part of the $4.3 billion dollar transaction, Marvel agreed to indemnify Disney for these claims by Kirby’s heirs. (To indemnify means that Marvel will defend Disney at Marvel’s cost and be responsible for any damage award against Disney). This is why Marvel filed the suit instead of Disney. Regardless, the Kirby children have requested a jury trial. When the jury hears how much Marvel made off of Kirby’s work, someone will need to get their checkbook out. Something tells me it won’t be Disney.

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