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Superhero Suits

Published onNov 22, 2013
Superhero Suits

Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man all finished in the top ten grossing movies for 2012. In 2013, not much has changed. Comic book heroes are still dominating weekend box office reports. In May, Iron Man 3 opened in the United States and grossed over $400,000,000 domestically; internationally, the film did even better, bringing in more $1 billion. Man of Steel came to theaters on June 14 and brought in over $600,000,000 worldwide. The Wolverine came out on July 26; it eventually hauled in more than $400,000,000. And so far things are shaping up great for the newest comic book movie, Thor: The Dark World. Released to international audiences on October 30, the Thor sequel earned more than $100,000,000 during its first weekend in theaters.

The big screen success of these characters shows the obvious: comic franchises are valuable. And great value brings lawsuits along for the ride. In the last few weeks alone, courts have decided two cases involving the rights to comic book characters. On October 22, 2013, a federal judge ruled against the plaintiffs in an appellate case involving Jack Kirby’s estate. (Jack Kirby is the co-creator of numerous Marvel characters, including the X-Men, Captain America, Thor, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four.) In the original lawsuit, Kirby’s estate sought to obtain Kirby’s share of copyrights in characters that he co-created. The estate sent “notices terminating copyright to publishers Marvel and Disney, as well as film studios that have made movies and TV shows based on characters he created or co-created.” However, the lower court ruled against Kirby’s estate, stating that Kirby had no copyrights in the characters. The appellate court agreed. In a very short opinion, the court denied a petition “for a rehearing of the judgment that the heirs have no right to issue copyright termination notices to Marvel Comics.”

Another recent comic book lawsuit involved Stan Lee Media. Over a decade ago, Stan Lee Media went bankrupt, and, as part its bankruptcy proceeding, the company lost its rights to Conan the Barbarian. Ten years after the proceedings finished, the company tried to regain its rights with an action to set aside the bankruptcy court’s settlement order. Stan Lee Media lost in district court when the judge dismissed its action; the company then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, Stan Lee Media sought relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60. The company first argued that the district court’s decision was void due to either adverse domination of Stan Lee Media during bankruptcy negotiations or because the bankruptcy proceedings were a disguised sale, which would require notice to shareholders. The appellate court disagreed, and Stan Lee Media went on to argue that the district court abused its discretion “in denying Rule 60(d)(3) relief based on fraud on the court.” Once again, the appellate court disagreed, finding that “[a]ll of [Stan Lee Media’s] fraud allegations are based on non-disclosures, which are generally insufficient to support a claim of fraud on the court.”

*Stephen DeGrow is a third-year student at Wake Forest University School of Law and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Cornell University.

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