Disney Files Lawsuits to Keep Full Rights to Marvel Characters Like Iron Man and Black Widow

Disney is suing the heirs of multiple comic book creators in an effort to keep the full rights to characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man and more

2012's The Avengers. Photo: Marvel Enterprises/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Marvel is fighting to keep the full rights to The Avengers characters.

Disney, which owns the superhero comic company, filed a number of lawsuits Friday against the heirs of late comic book creators like Stan Lee and Gene Colan, according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE. [The Hollywood Reporter first reported on the lawsuits.] The suits seek to make some of Marvel's most popular characters ineligible for copyright termination.

Friday's lawsuits come after Marvel was served this past spring by Hollywood intellectual property lawyer Marc Toberoff, who hit the company with notices of copyright termination from five of his clients, who include writer and artist Lawrence D. Lieber, the younger brother of Lee; plus Steve Ditko and Don Heck, heirs of Don Rico and Gene Colan, according to The New York Times.

Toberoff's five clients are attempting to reclaim the rights to characters they helped create — which include Iron Man, Spider-Man, Doctor. Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Falcon and Thor — who are now estimated to be worth billions of dollars combined, according to THR.

Avengers (2012)
Poster for The Avengers (2012). Marvel Studios

Disney's lawsuits hinge on the concept of copyright termination. Per THR, "authors or their heirs can reclaim rights once granted to publishers after waiting a statutory set period of time," as stated in copyright law. Some of Toberoff's termination notices would take effect as soon as 2023, including the Ditko estate's notice of termination on Spider-Man.

Dan Petrocelli, who is representing Disney, is filing multiple lawsuits in cases that "will focus on the creation of famous comic book characters and whether they should be deemed as works made for hire," THR reports.

The suits are asking judges to hold that the termination notices are invalid, according to the Times, which reports that Petrocelli is arguing that the work created by Toberoff's clients "was done at Marvel's instance and expense."

In a complaint filed against Lieber, Disney stated, "Marvel assigned Lieber stories to write, had the right to exercise control over Lieber's contributions and paid Lieber a per-page rate for his contributions," per the Times.

Such conditions would make his contributions "work made for hire, to which the Copyright Act's provisions do not apply," the complaint reads.

When reached for comment by PEOPLE, Petrocelli stated, "Since these were works made for hire and thus owned by Marvel, we filed these lawsuits to confirm that the termination notices are invalid and of no legal effect."

Toberoff's clients could receive "a portion of profits" from new Marvel works based on copyrighted material if they are successful in their termination notices, according to the Times.

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