For the past few years Marvel and the Jack Kirby estate have been in and out of the courtroom over the legal issue of who owns some of Marvel’s most prevalent comic book characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Hulk, and many of the Avengers. The time period in question was between 1958 and 1963 when Kirby worked as a freelancer for Marvel. The Kirby family has sued Marvel for the character rights, feeling that their deceased family member should have the primary copyright to these characters as well as more credit and royalties from their creation.
The battle became heated at times, both in the court and on the internet forums as fans took sides. In the end, though, it was only the ruling of U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon who mattered. Yesterday McMahon ruled in favor of Marvel due to the fact that, according to Copyright act of 1909, the “for hire” status under which Kirby was working makes him exempt from the general copyright law that after a certain number of years authors and artists are able to obtain rights to their original creations. Therefore Marvel, and through them the Disney Corporation, retain full rights to the characters without having to pay the Kirby’s a settlement.
The suit is careful to recognize that many of these properties were co-created with others, and so refers to them as Co-Owned Kirby Works, rather than seeking sole ownership rights. The lawsuit makes no mention as to what the proper restitution would be, though The Hollywood Reporter suggests that “any termination of copyrights could be worth tens of millions of dollars, if not more.” (Blastr.com)
The ruling was probably, in all reality, an expected one. Whether it would have made a difference if it was Kirby himself fighting for the rights to his comics instead of his family, who essentially had no hand in it, is a matter of speculation.