No matter how hard they try, Disney and Marvel can’t seem to shake the specter of Stan Lee Media: Just two months after a federal judge dismissed a multibillion lawsuit against Disney for ownership of the Marvel characters co-created by Stan Lee, the failed dot-com has emerged in another, seemingly unrelated dispute.
In September, Disney, Marvel and Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. sued Lancaster, Pennsylvania-bases American Music Theatre, saying it violated copyrights and trademarks by using elements of Spider-Man, Mary Poppins and The Lion King in its musical revue Broadway: Now and Forever (Disney and Mackintosh jointly hold the copyright to the Mary Poppins stage production).
On Monday the theater responded with an eye-opening claim of its own: that Disney doesn’t own Spider-Man. Instead, the counterclaim states, the character belongs to Stan Lee Media, which licensed the rights to the American Music Theatre.
Here’s where we take a break for a primer on Stan Lee Media, which, it’s important to note, hasn’t had a connection to its co-founder and namesake for a long time: In 1998, Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter used the company’s bankruptcy to end the $1 million-a-year lifetime contract with Stan Lee, negating the writer’s assignment to the company of his rights to his co-creations. It also freed Lee to form Stan Lee Entertainment, which later merged with Stan Lee Media, with infamous entrepreneur Peter F. Paul. That company in turned filed for Chapter 11 in February 2001. Shortly after SLM emerged from federal bankruptcy protection in 2006, its shareholders began a series of lawsuits — against Marvel, Lee, Disney and others — to assert the company’s stake in Lee’s Marvel co-creations (all efforts have been unsuccessful).
All of the lawsuits filed by SLM’s shareholders hinge on a sequence of events that took place between August 1998, when Marvel terminated Lee’s employment, and November 1998, when Lee entered into a new agreement with the House of Ideas and signed over his likeness, and any claims to the characters. Stan Lee Media has long claimed that on Oct. 15, 1998, Lee transferred to that company the rights to his creations and his likeness. SLM asserted in a 2012 lawsuit that neither Marvel nor Disney, which bought the comic company in 2009, ever registered Lee’s November 1998 agreement with the U.S. Copyright Office. Therefore, the plaintiffs argued, they actually own the Marvel characters.
Elements of that winding legal history are referenced in American Music Theatre’s response, filed Monday in federal court in Philadelphia. In court papers, the theater states it lacks knowledge of whether the Lion King and Mary Poppins “trademarks, artwork, songs and other properties” belong to Disney, demands proof; a “fair use” claim is thrown in for good measure. However, the defendant points to a licensing agreement with Stan Lee Media as evidence that the Spider-Man rights were never infringed.
American Music Theatre also filed a third-party counterclaim against Stan Lee Media, seeking a declaratory judgment as to ownership of Spider-Man and the “Non Spider-Man Characters.” Those include Iron Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Thor, the Hulk and “most of” the Avengers, which were purportedly part of the “exclusive” licensing agreement for “stage and theatrical productions.”
The Disney parties and the American Music Theatre have requested a jury trial.