Stan Lee Media steps into licensing dispute, sues Disney

Continuing its long, and so far wholly unsuccessful, fight for ownership of many of Marvel's best-known characters, the tenacious Stan Lee Media has sued a Walt Disney Co. subsidiary, seeking to join a dispute about licensing Spider-Man for the stage.

In September, Disney Enterprises, Marvel and Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. sued Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based 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). The theater responded in November with the surprising claim that Disney doesn’t own Spider-Man. Instead, the counterclaim stated, the character belongs to Stan Lee Media, which licensed the rights to the American Music Theatre.

The theater also filed a third-party counterclaim against Stan Lee Media, conveniently opening the door for the failed dot-com in December to seek a declaratory judgment that it, and not Disney or Marvel, owns Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, Thor and other superheroes.

The history and players can get a little confusing, so let's break for a primer on Stan Lee Media, which hasn't had a connection to its namesake and co-founder in 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. 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 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 insisted 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 argue, they actually own the Marvel characters.

That assertion forms the backbone of the latest complaint against Disney Enterprises, in which SLM asserts that its ownership of the Spider-Man copyrights and trademarks "are at issue in this case and may be determined by its outcome." The shareholders insist that none of the previous rulings over the past decade -- and there have been many -- has directly addressed the merits of their ownership claims.

Requesting a jury trial, Stan Lee Media seeks a declaration that it owns the copyrights to Spider-Man -- and, presumably, by extension, those to the other Marvel characters Lee co-created.

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