Jack Kirby’s Estate Sues Disney/Marvel

Published 6 years ago by , Updated February 10th, 2012 at 8:40 am,

jack kirby header Jack Kirby’s Estate Sues Disney/Marvel

In a move the reeks of opportunism and greed, Jack Kirby’s Estate (a.k.a. his family) have hired Intellectual Property Lawyer Marc Toberoff to sue Disney/Marvel, Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures in an attempt to reclaim copyright ownership of the characters their late father Jacob Kurtzberg created. You may know his name better as Jack Kirby and you are most familiar with his iconic and highly popular comic book creations, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and The Silver Surfer.

Thanks to the guys over /Film for sharing this with us and to Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool and Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywod who seem to have gotten the drop on this breaking news. This is not the first lawsuit we’ve seen involving a comic book creator’s estate vs. the current owner and publisher; Just recently we reported and discussed WB/DC’s fight with the heirs of Jerry Siegel and Jerry Schuster over the rights to Superman.

The Siegel/Shuster heirs have been successful in their legal pursuit to some degree; they now have full access to Superman’s origins with many thanks going to their superstar lawyer (you guessed it) Marc Toberoff. What they are going to do with the just the origins of Superman remains a mystery to me, because after the countless retellings of Superman’s beginnings, I’m pretty sure we weren’t going to see that story again anytime soon.

Back to Jack Kirby: His Estate is currently suing and sending termination of copyrights notifications to each of the big studios that have involvement with any of characters Kirby created. The rest of this article is background information on Jack Kirby and my own observations and opinions. I am not a copyright lawyer, nor do I claim to have extensive background knowledge on U.S. Copyright Laws; so if you see something I misinterpreted, please enlighten me.

This isn’t the first time Kirby and Marvel haven’t seen eye to eye on things. In a very detailed account over at The Comic Journal, Marvel was in a major dispute with Kirby during much of the 80s, regarding his  work from the 60s and 70s. At the end of the day (and after Will Eisner got involved), Marvel reluctantly agreed to give Kirby back 1900 pages of his work. That seems like a lot, but it’s actually less than 25% of what Kirby had done.

fantastic four Jack Kirby’s Estate Sues Disney/Marvel

Kirby was the first illustrator hired when Jerry Iger and Will Eisner formed Eisner & Iger Studios in the 1930s.  Until 1978, when the copyright laws were changed, most if not all of the comic creators hired artists under a “work-for-hire arrangement”. In other words: artists didn’t own the rights to whatever they were paid to draw. The same thing is still done today in other business models – electronics and programming are two of the biggest examples.

When a programmer working for Microsoft writes a new program and it turns into the major code behind a new piece of Microsoft software, that programmer doesn’t own the rights to his code. He was paid by Microsoft to write it and has already been fairly compensated for his time and effort. He doesn’t have the right to sue once that program starts making millions of dollars, just because he is jealous.

I don’t claim to know the copyright laws inside and out, but to me it would seem pretty simple: If Jack Kirby was hired under those aforementioned circumstances, then any characters he created should not be his to own. Sure, he will always get “creative credit” for coming up with them in the first place, but it’s not like he thought them up in his garage and then Marvel came along and stole them in the night. From what I understand, Kirby was paid fairly to create those Marvel characters and without the company publishing his work, he would not have gotten them off the ground. Of course the reverse could be (and likely will be) argued – that Kirby created the most iconic characters in Marvel’s repertoire and without him they would have died a slow comic death.

(Head to pg. 2 to help answer the question, “Why Now?”)

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  2. how isit greed? the dude created the characters from nothing. he deserves most of the credit! damn if it wasnt for this article i wouldnt have known who he was, hes name should be much better known and given more credit.

    put it this way if it wasnt for him creating the iconic superheroes there would be no movies about them cos they wouldnt exsist.

  3. I think the timing of this lawsuit stinks, and yes, I do believe it’s because Disney now owns these properties. It does stink of a quick cash grab, and to be honest, I don’t really see much coming of it. I guess Paul hit the heart of the matter in questioning whether or not Marvel PAID Kirby to create these characters or if he actually owned the rights to them and Marvel just published them. I don’t see how since Marvel has been publishing them for decades. I think the Kirby estate is hoping for a quick settlement from Disney so that the projects can continue. Why didn’t they sue when Fox was making oodles of money off of X-Men and F4? No, this is a cash grab and I hope that this dispute is resolved quickly. I think we’ll be able to count on Screen Rant to keep us informed on any developments.

  4. Correct me if im wrong but he co created these characters with Stan lee. So how can his estate claim ownership?

  5. Correct me if im wrong but Kirby co created these characters with Stan Lee. So how can his estate claim ownership?

  6. Don’t feel bad at all for Disney on this one as they have stolen copyrighted material for decades and never got called on it. They then brand it Disney and fight tooth and nail to prove they created it.

    Screw Disney all the way !!! I will never support that conglom ever!!!

  7. This does sound like a case of “ambulance chasers”.

    Why are they pursuing it know? It was Kirby’s creations, his work. Not his kids, or grand kids, did he leave them a letter/will telling them to avenge him and get his work back.

    Stories like this just piss me off.

  8. It always bugs the crap out of me when something like this happens. Legal precedence or not, I hate it when the kids of a deceased writer (or in this case, artist) try to claim the rights the to the characters their parents created.

    They had NOTHING to do with the characters. They deserve nothing.

    It would something else entirely if Kirby himself were still around and he filed this lawsuit, since, you know, they’re his characters, but I honestly feel that Marvel, and in Supes’ case, DC, SHOULD have more legal rights to the characters than the family of the creators.

  9. The Siegels had a case.
    The Kirbys dont.
    funny how they waited until Disney was interested in Marvel to do this.

  10. Are you guys aware that years ago, Disney stole characters like “Snow White” and “Cinderella” from OTHER artists and then sued them into oblivion ??? Guess not ???

    Disney doesn’t deserve any sympathy on this matter. Sure the Kirby’s are smelling Disney money but this is a karmic loop Disney has nurtured and supported. Too bad their tactics are now being used against them oh how sad,,, :-(
    (I smell bailout!)

    If the Kirby’s have a case this will get settled if not it will drag out, all the while it won’t have any effect on the characters some of you seem so worried about. In the end one way or another Disney will pay and life in the Marvel universe will continue…

  11. If Kirby himself didn’t sue, then the family should respect that intention and back off if they weren’t so greedy.

  12. Forget who’s entiteled! I don’t want anything to get in the way of more (Iron Man) movies being produced… so I’m rooting for keeping the status quo. It seems to be working so far.

    In this instance I guess that means letting Disney keep the rights. Though I preferred it when it was just Marvel running the show, but that’s all gone now.

  13. Reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family looking to cash in on his name to keep them out of having to actually work for a living.


  14. Just pay them royalties Disney has the money

  15. They will be crushed by Disney’s Lawyers……

  16. Yeah and corporate entities should be able to bend the law to their will so as to be able to hold rights forever. I’m sure someday only big corporations will have that right. Of course corporate greed doesn’t have to stop there they can grab moral rights too. It’s just a matter of money right. RIGHT!

    I hope the family gets a payday. Karma way to go…

  17. I wonder what’s gonna happen after Stan Lee passes away? Is he’s family going to do the same?

  18. @the old man

    If you work for a tech company and patent something – even if the company ends up making millions off it all you get is your salary. That’s what you AGREED to when you hired on. If you make a DIFFERENT arrangement for compensation, fine.

    And again, this is his family, not him personally. I call gold-diggers.


  19. Does Stan Lee have any say in this?

    I always thought it was him that created these characters.

  20. Well Vic I must admit that I don’t know what Kirby, Ditka, or any of the other artists specifics were in their contracts. Copyright law is also a little different from patent law too. Be it as it may, since we’re both Monday morning quarterbacking, I think it’s only fair that the
    other side of the coin should be stared at occasionally, even if you don’t like what you see. I’ve been on both sides of the table in my life, and while neither side likes to give in, I’ve found nature most often seeks balance. If you don’t HEAR anything I say, at least spend a little coin and read “The Working Life” Joanne B. Ciulla. I think
    you’ll find her cogent work revealing.

  21. Good points Old Man, I can’t see the Kirby estate wasting thousands on lawyer fees going up against the legal equivalent of Goliath without having some legitimate beef.
    Time will tell on this one,,,

  22. Jack Kirby’s been dead for 15 years. His family should have more respect for him than to drag his name through the mud in hopes of an easy payday from Disney.

    And all of Kirby’s creations were collaborative with Stan Lee. What percentage of the creations can be attributed to him? Should his estate really be allowed 100% of the rights to something that he may have only had a 25% hand in creating? And what if all he really did was the designs and looks of the characters? Most of those costumes have changed since the ’60s, so is it still his creation, or should credit go to the artist who designed the new look?

    I also don’t think the scope of the lawsuit is well thought out. Siegel/Shuster suing Time-Warner/DC is one thing, but the Kirbys are taking legal action against Disney/Marvel, and Sony, and Universal, and Twentieth Century Fox. Do they really think they’re going to win against four multi-billion dollar companies and all of their teams of lawyers?

    In the end, who has more rights to the characters? The company who paid the contracted creators for their creation and has continued publishing new stories and materials about them for almost 50 years, or the children of one aspect of the paid creative team?

  23. If they lay a hand on Spiderman 4, i can`t even explain how ticked i`ll be.

  24. Hey, i have a question. Won`t they have to push back release deates if they do this?

  25. Jeolize, it won’t effect the release dates at all. ;-)

  26. But i`d really rather they leave Marvel alone until the Spiderman franchise is finished and atleast one of each Marvel superhero franchise is done, i mean i thought they are already writing scripts for much of the upcoming films like all the Iron Man 2, sm4, and avengers films…etc

  27. Disney please, there are things needed to be solved in the Spiderman films, the last thing a superhero franchise that`s messed up as Spiderman needs is to be moved to another company, so dO NOT TAKE HIM INTO YOUR INDUSTRY!!!!!!!!

  28. I think i meant prosperity, whatever

  29. Stan Lee has received far more credit than his due in the creation process. You just need to look at Stan’s “creativity” after Kirby stopped being part of the Marvel “family” to know the truth. Basically, Stan was the nephew of the owner of Marvel at the time Kirby came aboard and at best he was an editor. Read Kirby’s interviews in the comic journal for the full story.

    Copyright laws have changed dramatically over the years, otherwise Mickey Mouse would now be in the public domain. Disney spent the campaign contributions wide to the left and right and got a huge extension that was worth billions to them. The original creators were never given anything in
    exchange for the huge additional value their creations now had. Keep in mind the original concept was the artist was being paid for basically a one shot. Reprints did not exist
    in the manner they do now.

    Please do not compare a computer programmers job with an artist. We work under different rules. I’m a programmer, I fully understand how my code will be used and reused. Artists have been ripped off and lied to since day one.

    The original “contracts” for comic book work were stamped on the back of the paychecks. Courts found these contracts
    invalid. Kirby’s art (his property) was held hostage by
    marvel until he signed away most his rights so that his
    family would be guaranteed something.

    Kirby and Simon reclaimed the rights to the earliest issues of Captain America years ago. Even Stan Lee does not try to claim any creative ownership over the Silver Surfer, at least not before Kirby was dead and buried. Get the original issues and compare to the reprints. Interesting how at times the credits have been changed.

    Without the core characters created by Kirby, there is no marvel. Sure they could put out a comic staring squirrel girl, but who would buy it? All they would have to do is team up with Image or some other independent and it would be Marvel back in bankruptcy again.