After Spider-Man world domination, the Supreme Court may intervene amid a series of copyright termination lawsuits. As Tom Holland leaves the web-slinger behind, there may come a point when Disney and Sony have to fight for their most lucrative characters.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) just made history when it opened exclusively in movie theaters last weekend, December 17 — December 15 in UK cinemas. As Holland returned as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Peter Parker, the eponymous Spider-Man, so did Zendaya (MJ), Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), and Benedict Wong as Wong. The third film from director Jon Watts also saw the MCU introduction of villains actors Alfred Molina (Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), Jamie Foxx (Maxwell Dillon/Electro), Thomas Haden Church (Flint Marko/Sandman), and Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors/Lizard).
The box office success of the Marvel studio movie has proven to be the strongest in the pandemic era and, even though Holland’s future is seemingly up in the air, has fans yearning for more Spider-Man content from either Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios or Amy Pascal and Sony Pictures. With rumors of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield reprising their versions of Peter Parker from Spider-Man (2002) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), respectively, there could be a chance that one of these actors continues the Spider-Man legacy left behind from third live-action incarnation, Tom Holland, almost twenty years after Sam Raimi’s feature film outing for the New York hero.
At the other studio, Venom star, Tom Hardy, is facing intense backlash over resurfaced controversial comments after Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) dominated the box office earlier this year.
But, while Holland’s star is rising — even if he did just call for a doctor during an interview — and the world can’t stop talking about Doc Ock, Green Goblin, and Spider-Man, there could be a chance future plans for the lucrative franchise are scuppered by an ongoing lawsuit and potential involvement from the Supreme Court.
Earlier this year, it was reported that the Steve Ditko estate — Ditko being one of Marvel Comics’ most beloved creators along with the late Stan Lee — had filed a copyright termination notice for characters such as Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. The parties the notices were filed against were:
Marvel Entertainment, LLC, Marvel Worldwide, Inc., Marvel Property, Inc., Marvel Characters, Inc. (NY), Marvel Studios, LLC, MVL Rights, LLC, MVL Development, LLC, Marvel Characters, Inc. (CA), Walt Disney Company & Marvel Animation, Inc., successors in title to Vista Publications, Inc.
Where the filing gets murky is the difference between the work Ditko created as the sole creator and the work he created as an employee for Marvel Entertainment, or “work made for hire”. Copyright.gov tells us:
For legal purposes, when a work is a “work made for hire,” the author is not the individual who actually created the work. Instead, the party that hired the individual is considered both the author and the copyright owner of the work. Whether a work is a work made for hire is determined by facts in existence at the time the work is created.
That being said, as The Hollywood Reporter notes on a similar copyright case, there is still a chance the lawsuit could swing in favor of Ditko’s estate. They draw a comparison to a current filing regarding the popular family board game, the “Game of Life”. The report states:
For the past few years, this popular board game has been the center of a legal squabble over its creation. Now, the case has hit the high court, and that’s got Hollywood insiders very interested.
The report goes on to say that the “Game of Life” suffered a similar fate to what is likely happening with Ditko’s filing — that the work of Bill Markham was done for Milton Bradley (later acquired by Hasbro) and thus the “Game of Life” was not his own creation. However, in an interesting turn of events, Markham’s heirs have secured a win with the filing being affirmed by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
With muddled legislation over the years including a variety of copyright acts, Markham’s heirs are petitioning the Supreme Court to intervene in the matters of creator and creation, and the future compensation of these makers. Now, if the review of the Supreme Court goes through on January 7, 2022, it could mean that despite their strong legal position, that Disney is left to fork out for the rights of their billion-dollar characters. The report reminds us that Disney has been here before:
Disney feels confident in its legal position thanks to some court success a decade ago in the Jack Kirby copyright termination fight — but that confidence gets a little shaky with respect to the Supreme Court. A decade ago, when Kirby’s heirs filed a very similar petition as Markham’s to the high court, Disney forked over tens of millions of dollars to settle the case rather than risk a reversal.
While it is unlikely that a behemoth studio like The Walt Disney Company will lose the rights to these popular characters, it does pose a larger question over a creator’s right to compensation of their work, and begs for reasoning and clarity behind specific copyright terms like “work made for hire”. The Marvel lawsuits also include other characters like Iron Man and the Mighty Thor.
As for the current future of Spider-Man, Feige has said that Marvel Studios and Sony are actively planning a future for the fan-favorite Avenger but Holland’s involvement is still uncertain. The MCU will move on from the Spider-Man trilogy with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) next with Sony actively padding out their Sony’s Spider-Man Universe roster with Morbius (2022) and Kraven the Hunter (2023), as well as the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) — Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2022) starring Miles Morales.
What do you think about the Spider-Man copyright filing? Let us know in the comments down below!