Stan Lee Media fires back at Disney in fight over Spider-Man

Fighting an effort to end its persistent claims to Spider-Man, the tenacious Stan Lee Media Inc. insists it's up to Disney to prove ownership of the Marvel superhero.

In documents filed Tuesday in federal court in Philadelphia, the failed dot-com again argued that none of the previous cases over the past decade -- and there have been many -- has directly addressed the merits of its ownership claims. "No judge has decided that Disney actually owns the Spider‐Man copyrights or, for that matter, that SLMI does not own the copyrights," the papers state. "[...] That issue has never been decided, and Disney has now placed it directly before the court in this case."

"This case" is a copyright- and trademark-infringement involving the use of elements from Spider-Man, Mary Poppins and The Lion King in a musical revue staged by the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based American Music Theatre. What Disney's lawyers thought would be "a simple case" took an unexpected turn in November when the theater responded that it had licensed Spider-Man, from Stan Lee Media, which was named in a third-party counterclaim (the license was obtained after Disney filed suit). That opened the door for the company, which no longer has a connection to Stan Lee, to sue Disney, seeking a jury trial regarding ownership of Spider-Man, and, presumably, the other Marvel characters it's sought since emerging from bankruptcy in 2006.

Stan Lee Media's claims hinge on a sequence of events that took place between August 1998, when Marvel terminated Stan 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 insisted that on Oct. 15, 1998, Lee transferred to that company the rights to his creations and his likeness. SLMI 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, SLMI argued, it actually own those Marvel characters.

Disney last month asked the judge to put an end to Stan Lee Media's dogged pursuit of the property, arguing that not only have four federal courts precluded SLM from relitigating its ownership of the copyrights based on its 1998 agreement with Lee, but that SLM’s claims are barred by a three-year statute of limitations. In addition, Disney says, the company is an “administratively dissolved corporation that lacks the capacity to license.”

However, in Tuesday's lengthy filing, which retraces the serpentine path of the dispute, Stan Lee Media insists prior litigation can't prevent American Music Theatre, "and concomitantly SLMI, from defending itself by showing Disney’s assertion is wrong." It also disputes the facts in Disney's arguments concerning when the clock started on the statute of limitations as well as the company's status as an "administratively dissolved corporation."

The American Music Theatre also filed papers in opposition of Disney's motion.

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