Nothing is eternal — is this the start of a new era for comic book IP?
The recent announcement of a collaboration between esteemed publisher Penguin Classics and comics giant Marvel is the latest proof that comic book content is dominating the zeitgeist.
Later this year, they will be publishing special editions of Black Panther, Captain America, and The Amazing Spider-Man under the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection, which will mark the first time comics have been published by Penguin Classics.
With luxe treatment including hardcovers with gold foil stamping and gold top stain edges, these editions showcase the elevated status that comics now occupy in popular culture.
The names of the people responsible for creating comic book characters and plots are also prominently displayed on these beautiful book covers. However, many of them, and their estates, are still fighting to get what they believe is a fairer ownership deal for this intellectual property.
Here’s the situation: according to The Hollywood Reporter, US copyright law allows authors or their heirs to reclaim rights once granted to publishers after a set period of time has passed. The late Steve Ditko co-created the character Spider-Man, who debuted in comic books in 1962. Earlier this year, the administrator of Ditko’s estate filed a notice of termination on Spider-Man. Going by the logic of the copyright law, that means Marvel would have to return Ditko’s rights over Spider-Man to his estate in 2023.
Spider-Man is extremely valuable IP — just count the number of movies starring this character in the 21stcentury alone. So, naturally, Marvel is suing. Its argument: Spider-Man is not eligible for copyright termination, as the character was created as work made for hire.
This isn’t the first time lawsuits over comic book IP has occurred, and the friendly neighbourhood web-slinger is not the only subject of recent cases. Other characters created by other comic book artists are at stake too, including Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Falcon, and Thor.
“If Marvel loses, Disney would have to share ownership of characters worth billions,” as The Hollywood Reporter puts it.
The current creators of comic book content are no doubt watching these proceedings keenly, as it will likely set a benchmark for future IP ownership.
In the meantime, new business models are already emerging that offer creators better terms for IP ownership. Newsletter platform Substack is offering top-tier comics creators full ownership of all IP created during their time with Substack, and the right to sell this IP to studios for future film or TV adaptations.
Will future comics-based blockbusters deliver hefty paydays for the original creators as well as their publishers and movie studios? If there’s anything the world has learned from these past years of watching superhero movies, perhaps it’s this — anything is possible.
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