The estate of Steve Ditko, the legendary comic book creator behind some of the most iconic characters of the silver age of comics, has officially filed to take back the copyrights of two of his most famous creations, the Marvel superheroes Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.
The notices of copyright termination were filed by Ditko's heir, Patrick Ditko, who is the administrator of his estate. Both notices, as detailed on the website for the US Copyright Office, go back to both characters' first appearances in the pages of Marvel comics. The notice for Doctor Strange can be found here, and the notice for Spider-Man can be found here.
The character Spider-Man is the alias of Peter Parker, a young New York resident who, after being bitten by a radioactive spider, obtained a now-iconic set of superpowers that enabled him to become the wall-crawling web-slinger. First appearing in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962 drawn by Ditko and written by Stan Lee, the character has since spawned a massive media franchise, becoming Marvel's most famous superhero with merchandise sales rivaling Superman and Batman and numerous blockbuster films, TV shows, and video games under his name.
Doctor Strange also appeared during the silver age, first debuting in Strange Tales #110 in 1963. Made once again by the artist-author duo of Ditko and Lee, the character was a brain surgeon named Stephen Strange who, after injuring his hands beyond repair, takes up magic and soon defends the planet as sorcerer supreme. Though not as popular as Spider-Man, the character has still seen widespread appeal within Marvel Comics and has risen to new prominence following the critically-acclaimed 2016 film Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Both characters have been very successful for Marvel, and this copyright termination, if successful, could see them in legal trouble, as the rights to the characters would essentially revert to the estate.
This is accomplished through the use of the Copyright Act of 1976, which has provisions for creators and their heirs to try and regain rights to their works.
And this idea is far from unprecedented. Many creators have successfully tried this in the past, such as the estate of horror movie icon Wes Craven regaining the rights to A Nightmare on Elm Street.
But in the world of comics, this is a bit different.
Creators and their estates have tried on numerous occasions to get the copyrights to their characters back from the publishing companies, specifically against Marvel and DC, whose main brands do not give creators the rights to their characters, compared to other companies like Image, which is entirely creator-owned.
The most famous instance of this was by the estates of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their legal battles with DC Comics over the rights to Superman.
Ultimately, a long legal battle ensued and in the end, the creators won, and now DC publishes all Superman comics with the line "By Special Arrangement with the Jerry Siegel Family."
But this case is an exception, because the creators outright sold the copyright, meaning they had created it first. This is not the case with others.
Comics legend Jack Kirby was one of the most prolific creators of all time, helping to create famous characters such as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Thor, DC's New Gods, and many more. However, his disputes with Marvel were longstanding, and his family later filed around 45 copyright termination notices against the company.
A settlement was eventually achieved, but this was after multiple courts ruled against the family after determining that his works were not sold like the rights to Superman were, but were instead made as "Works for Hire." This means that technically, the company would own the copyright and not the creator.
It is likely that this is the argument Marvel plans to make against Ditko's estate. However, exactly how this case unfolds remains to be seen, as copyright cases can stretch out for years.
The notices of termination both state that they go into effect in June of 2023.
Notably, even if the copyright suit succeeds, Marvel will still be allowed to publish Spider-Man and Doctor Strange content, as that is not a matter of copyright but of trademark. However, that would only extend to what the trademarks cover, and not other elements in the copyrighted work.
This is especially relevant for these two particular comics, as the copyright notices are specifically against their first appearances in publication. This could mean that while Spider-Man and Doctor Strange themselves are, in theory, protected by trademark, every other aspect is not. This could extend to their identities as Peter Parker and Stephen Strange as well as their costumes, signature abilities and gadgets, backstories, and supporting cast.
This has happened before. Between 1979 and 1986, Marvel published a comic series surrounding the character Rom the Space Knight. The character and design themselves were not Marvel's creation but were owned by the Parker Brothers toy company, now a Hasbro subsidiary.
In this comic book run, a detailed backstory was established for Rom, including identity, origin, plotline, and motivations. He was made a part of the Marvel Universe, crossing over with other heroes like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
However, while Marvel continued publishing some Rom stories in the coming decades, they eventually lost the rights, which were then given to IDW Publishing, which released their own Rom series. However, this setting and backstory were distinctly different from that of Marvel's and sees the character more integrated with the IDW universe, which sees the space knight share a setting with the Transformers.
Despite this, Marvel continues to give cameos from some of the characters created in their Rom series, as while they cannot use the character Rom the Space Knight, they can still use the rest of the cast, story beats, and background created for the character.
As such, it isn't without precedence that this could, in theory, happen again. However, it is far more likely that Marvel and its parent company Disney will attempt to reach a settlement.