The $17,000 that Marvel Comics intends to extract from Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich may cost them more than it’s worth, at least in terms of goodwill.
Friedrich, who created the character under in 1968, sued Marvel, Columbia Pictures and other companies in 2007, shortly after the release of the first Ghost Rider movie, claiming the copyrights had reverted to him six years earlier. The court found in Marvel’s favor in late December, ruling that Friedrich had twice relinquished his rights to the property, once by endorsing a freelance check that included an assignment agreement, and again when he signed a contract granting all rights to previous work in exchange for the possibility of more freelance assignments (which he never actually received).
Marvel figures that Friedrich made $17,000 from “the distribution and sale of goods depicting the Ghost Rider character appearing in Marvel Spotlight, Vol. 1, No. 5,” and the company wants its money back; in return, Marvel won’t pursue its counterclaims against him. Friedrich, who is 69, says he doesn’t have it. Marvel also wants him to stop selling Ghost Rider merchandise or even calling himself the creator of Ghost Rider if there’s anything in it for him.
Now, you can understand Marvel (and parent company Disney) wanting to protect its copyrights; that’s just good business, as Ebenezer Scrooge used to say. And clearly Friedrich has been a thorn in the company’s side for a while. But in these days of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the sight of a rich corporation sending a bill for $17,000 to a destitute comics writer (who is probably destitute in part because of the work-for-hire system) is not playing well. A Support Gary Friedrich Facebook page has sprung up and already has 960 Likes; Marvel is getting called a bunch of jerks (and much worse) in forums and comments all over the Internet, and a fan even wrote an open letter to Ghost Rider star Nicolas Cage, asking him to pay the $17,000 himself. This has now become a petition at Change.org (where the Jack Kirby petition now has more than 800 signatures, by the way).
Torsten Adair has a great post at The Beat that gives more details on Friedrich’s current situation and raises (as does the CBR article) the troubling possibility that this case may lead to a rash of lawsuits against creators who sell convention sketches of superheroes they don’t own. Publishers have tended to turn a blind eye to this, because it doesn’t really cost them anything, it increases the visibility of the characters, and enforcing it harshly would make them look like, well, a bunch of jerks. But when lawyers walk into the room, common sense goes out the window. That is clearly what has happened in the Friedrich case. $17,000 means nothing to a corporation like Marvel — it probably spend that on wastebaskets for its meeting rooms — but the insistence on collecting it will ensure that Friedrich will spend the rest of his days in misery. That’s the sort of behavior that makes people hate big companies, even ones that make their favorite comics. Having won their case in court, Marvel should just declare victory and walk away.