In Big Ruling, Sony Beats 'Iron Man' Composer's Lawsuit

In a dispute over Ghostface Killer songs, a judge rules that Marvel — not Jack Urbont — is the statutory author of the "Iron Man Theme."

Could a ruling involving Iron Man, a rapper from the Wu Tang Clan and a music composer working in television for decades be the ticket for Hollywood's next great appellate showdown?

On Monday, a New York federal judge granted summary judgment to defendant Sony Music over Jack Urbont's claims that Ghostface Killah sampled the "Iron Man Theme" on two tracks of the rapper's second album, Supreme Clientele. In ruling in Sony's favor, U.S. District Court judge Naomi Reice Buchwald examined how Marvel's Stan Lee set up Urbont to create music for the 1960s television show The Marvel Super Heroes. She determined that Urbont contributed his materials as a "work made for hire," meaning that Marvel really owns the work and Urbont had no standing to claim an illegal sample. Sony is the beneficiary of this determination, but the opinion steps on controversial territory and might set off a flurry of amicus briefs should Urbont take the matter to a higher authority.

First some background.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the House of Marvel operated in a loose collaborative working group environment known as the "Marvel Method." In part because of a lack of documentation around the time, there's been many subsequent fights over intellectual property rights. For instance, Marvel fought for years with Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich. And they battled Jack Kirby when the comic book legend attempted to terminate a copyright grant.

In those disputes, the issue of whether the artists had created their works as "made for hire" was closely examined, and in the Kirby case, judges applied what is known as the "instance and expense" test, or what happens when the "employer induces the creation of the work and has the right to direct and supervise the manner in which the work is carried out."

Last September, Marvel came to a settlement with Kirby just days before the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to discuss whether to grant a review. The high court sent out signals that it was indeed interested in picking up this case, and when that happened, there was a flurry of amicus briefs from IP scholars and Hollywood labor guilds arguing a "critically important case" where judges overseeing the Kirby dispute had applied the wrong standard when looking at commissioned works.

Judge Buchwald's decision over the "Iron Man Theme" raises the prospect of reviving this debate — although there are wrinkles here that could arguably make it even more important.

In coming to her conclusion, the judge addresses Urbont's situation back in the '60s.

Urbont, whose later musical work includes That 70's Show, Oprah, 20/20 and The View, wasn't familiar back then with Marvel superheroes before getting in touch with Lee by a mutual friend. The composer wished to create songs for Marvel Super Heroes, and after reviewing comic books, he absorbed the nature of the characters and composed a theme and presented it to Lee's approval. After the songs were accepted, he received $3,000, which he used to record the music including the "Iron Man Theme."

There was no written agreement at the time, and Urbont didn't initially get royalties, but he was issued a certificate of registration. In the 1990s, he sued Marvel for unauthorized use of the theme and came to a settlement agreement, which referred to Urbont as the "owner" and Marvel as the "licensee."

Sony wasn't a party to Marvel's relationship with Urbont, and yet the judge allows the music company to challenge ownership anyway. As Urbont's lawyer put it in a motion brief, "It is outrageous for Sony to claim that the Works are works for hire, when the supposed employer does not itself claim that the Works are works for hire."

Nevertheless, the judge gives Sony standing to argue that "Iron Man Theme" is a work for hire, and once she does, Buchwald applies the same "instance and expense" test that became the focus of an attempted Supreme Court review in the Kirby case. She liberally quotes the 2nd Circuit's language in Kirby in guiding her analysis.

Eventually, she concludes that "the Iron Man Composition was created at Marvel’s instance because it was developed to Marvel’s specifications and for Marvel’s approval. As in Kirby, Urbont’s compositions 'were hardly self-directed projects in which he hoped Marvel, as one of several potential publishers, might have an interest...'"

She writes that Marvel retained a right to direct Urbont's work and that the composition "was created at Marvel’s expense because Urbont was paid the fixed sum of $3,000 for his work."

As stated above, the decision could prompt an appellate review — a motion for reconsideration might be the first step —on the same grounds as the Kirby case, but there's something of further interest here too. As Urbont's briefs to the judge stress, Sony is not the employer and there's no cited cases where "a third party infringer seek[s] a finding that a particular work is a work made for hire when there is no dispute between the supposed contractor and author." Another difference between Urbont and Kirby?

"In Kirby, plaintiff could offer no testimony regarding the understanding of the parties because the plaintiff was deceased," Urbont's lawyers wrote. "In this case, Urbont is able to testify and has testified to a contemporaneous understanding with the producers of the television series that he owned the Works."

In other words, Urbont at least wants the treatment that Friedrich got when the 2nd Circuit vacated a summary judgment ruling and ruled there were triable issues. (That case was later settled.)

Judge Buchwald doesn't seem to think it maters what Marvel and Urbont called the working relationship, or how the settlement agreement referred to Urbont as the "owner." She says that a settlement doesn't really mean that Marvel conceded that Urbont was the owner, and further "case law within the copyright infringement context affirms that a licensing or settlement agreement should not supplant a court’s independent determination of copyright ownership."

And so as a result of this ruling (read in full here), Marvel seems to be the owner of the "Iron Man Theme" — and didn't even ask for it!

UPDATE: Urbont has indeed submitted a motion for reconsideration. It's here.

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