In 2011, a federal judge rejected the four-year-old lawsuit filed by Ghost Rider co-creator Gary Friedrich, who claimed the rights to the Marvel Comics character reverted to him in 2001. Friedrich appealed the ruling and according to The Hollywood Reporter, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned the initial decision, causing the suit to go back to trial. (The full ruling is available to read here.)
In his ruling, Second Circuit appellate judge Denny Chin stated the agreement made between Friedrich and Marvel in 1978 “is ambiguous on its face,” further noting the contract defined the work as “ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased.” Judge Chin also said the contract wasn’t clear “whether it covered a work published six years earlier” or “whether it conveys renewal rights.”
“The Agreement could reasonably be construed as a form work-for-hire contract having nothing to do with renewal rights,” Judge Chin wrote in his ruling. “[At the time of the 1978 contract], ‘Spotlight 5′ had been published six years earlier by a different corporate entity (Magazine Mgmt.) and had grown so popular that Marvel had already reprinted it once and had launched a separate Ghost Rider comic book series. Given that context, it is doubtful the parties intended to convey rights in the valuable Ghost Rider copyright without explicitly referencing it. It is more likely that the Agreement only covered ongoing or future work. Hence, there is a genuine dispute regarding the parties’ intent for this form contract to cover Ghost Rider.”
One of Marvel’s well-publicized arguments against Friedrich’s appeal was that he waited too long to file his lawsuit, citing the statute of limitations, something that appears to be an issue to be addressed in trail court.
Perhaps most intriguing is Judge Chin’s comment about the ambiguity of Marvel’s 1978 work-for-hire contract as relates to the rights. The contract, as the judge notes, was pretty standard for the era, and a ruling in Friedrich’s favor at trial could potentially call into question rights ownership as relates to many of the other contracts signed during that period.
Indeed, Judge Chin’s ruling may call the entire Marvel Method into question as the lawsuit goes back to trial.
“When construed in Marvel’s favor, the record reveals that Friedrich had nothing more than an uncopyrightable idea for a motorcycle-riding character when he presented it to Marvel because he had not yet fixed the idea into a tangible medium,” Judge Chin wrote, stating that Ghost Rider’s appearance and origin story were developed “through the collaborative efforts of Friedrich, [Roy] Thomas, [Stan] Lee, and [Mike] Ploog, all of whom were paid by Marvel. If this is accepted as true, a jury could easily conclude from these facts that Ghost Rider was a ‘work made for hire’ and thus that Marvel was the sole statutory author.”
Considering the reason and explanation of why Friedrich’s lawsuit against Marvel is going back to trial, it should have significant interest to all comic fans and could be a groundbreaking case in creator’s rights.