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Disney lawsuit: Will Marvel lose the rights to its most famous Avengers?

Published Sep 25th, 2021 1:16PM EDT
Avengers Spider-Man
Image: Marvel Studios

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Marvel and Disney have run into an unexpected problem with some of their beloved Avengers characters. The heirs of some of the comic book authors behind many popular Marvel characters have sued for control over the copyrights for those characters. Marvel has already retaliated with lawsuits of its own, moving to defend against the claims. But there’s no reason to worry about the fate of Avengers and Spider-Man movies at this time. Marvel will continue to create more MCU stories. It doesn’t matter if the heirs get back control or if Disney successfully blocks them in court. So if you see hashtags out there calling for you to help save Spider-Man, you don’t need to panic. Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Widow, and all the other beloved Avengers do not need any saving.

When Sony wanted to remove Spider-Man from the Avengers

This isn’t like the last time. Back in summer 2019, after the immense success of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, the silent war between Sony and Disney became public. Sony wanted to remove Spider-Man from the MCU and build its own universe of Spider-Man movies. On the other side, Disney wanted more money out of its collaboration with Sony.

Marvel fans were very vocal at the time, and they ultimately showed Sony and Disney the way. The two giants reconciled their differences, ensuring that Spider-Man continues to play nice with the other Avengers. As a result, Tom Holland returned to the big screen as Peter Parker in No Way Home, which will be an MCU story.

Also, there’s no sign that the two parties will ever want to divorce. Given what rumors say about No Way Home, there’s already a way to have all these separate Spider-Men coexist successfully out there. Not all MCU Avengers stories need Spider-Man in them. And Sony’s Spider-Man universe does not require the Avengers as long as the MCU and SSU are loosely connected. Even if Sony and Disney were to break up again, it wouldn’t matter as much.

The new copyright battles

The new battles over control of character rights are different than the Sony vs. Disney disagreements. But there is one common theme: Money.

On one side, we have the heirs of comic book geniuses. The administrators of those estates want to take over control of the characters because the MCU movies are incredibly successful. Marvel made Disney tens of billions of dollars with its Avengers stories. And it’ll continue to milk the comic books for more amazing projects that will be staggeringly profitable. It’s no wonder that comic book heirs want a piece of that.

Then there’s Disney. The company showed its ruthless side when it comes to MCU profits earlier this year. Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson sued Disney, alleging the giant breached its contract by releasing the movie on Disney Plus at the same time it hit theaters. Johansson alleges that the move cost her a multi-million dollar payout that would have resulted from a theatrical-only release. Disney’s public responses were nothing short of disgraceful, losing the PR battle to Johansson in the process.

It’s no surprise that Disney doesn’t want to lose control over the Marvel character rights. If it were to happen, however, the studio would surely not stop making MCU movies. The only thing that would change is that Disney would have to share it astronomical profits with the new copyright holders.

What happens now?

With that in mind, there’s absolutely no reason to panic about the future of the Avengers and Spider-Man in MCU movies. It’s not up to fans to save Disney and Marvel.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Marvel has sued the heirs of some late comic book creators, including Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan. Marvel seeks declaratory relief that the characters these authors created are ineligible for copyright termination.

In August, the Ditko estate administrators filed a notice of termination on Spider-Man. THR explains that authors or their heirs can reclaim the rights after a set period under the termination provisions of copyright law. Marvel could lose the rights to Ditko’s characters in June 2023, including Spider-Man.

Marvel is seeking relief by claiming that it paid the comic book creators a per-page rate for their work. As a result, the creators never had any claim to these characters in the first place.

This sort of battle over rights happens all the time. One such instance occurred almost a decade ago when the estate of Jack Kirby sought to terminate a copyright grant on Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and The Mighty Thor. The case reached the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in August 2013, which affirmed a lower court’s ruling. Kirby’s heirs could not get back the rights, as Marvel hired Kirby to create those materials. The two parties settled before the case could reach the Supreme Court.

Per THR, if Disney loses, it’ll still co-own the character rights in the US. Of note, these claims would only impact the US — Disney will retain complete international control over the characters regardless of what happens.

Again, no matter what happens next, it’s unlikely that Disney, Marvel, and Sony, will stop making Avengers and Spider-Man movies anytime soon.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.