Tom Clancy's Widow Aims to Win Jack Ryan Character Rights in Lawsuit

The dispute is more than 30 years in the making — ever since 'Hunt for Red October' came out and Clancy was told that he'd be committing copyright infringement if he used Jack Ryan again.
David Lee / Paramount Pictures
'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' (2014)

As Amazon readies the debut of its newest TV series, Jack Ryan, a quirky dispute has erupted over ownership to the CIA character who has appeared in many books and movies and played by actors Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine and John Krasinski.

More than 30 years ago, Tom Clancy made the character famous in his first novel, Hunt, which became the basis for the film The Hunt for Red October. Soon thereafter, the author battled the publisher for rights. A resolution was reached, but it was merely a prelude to what would happen after Clancy died in October 2013. On Friday, Alexandra Clancy, the author's second wife and widow, filed a lawsuit in Baltimore, Maryland, circuit court with hopes of getting a declaration that the rights to the Jack Ryan character are owned by the Tom Clancy Estate. She's suing the personal representative of the Estate, who believes otherwise.

After Hunt came out in 1984, the United States Naval Institute, as publisher, asserted that it owned all rights to the book and that any use of the book's characters by Clancy would constitute copyright infringement. The matter went to arbitration where the case was settled with Clancy being acknowledged as owning the rights to the characters in his book.

Tom Clancy would then establish a company, Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd., designated to receive the reassignment of the Hunt copyright. But Alexandra Clancy is emphasizing what allegedly wasn't transferred.

"The assignment made no mention of the character Jack Ryan," states the complaint (read here in full). "Accordingly, unless Tom Clancy subsequently assigned his rights to the character Jack Ryan, he remained the exclusive owner of the character Jack Ryan until his death on October 1, 2013."

In support of this proposition, Alexandra Clancy points to intervening events like her late husband's 1999 divorce from first wife Wanda King. At the time, a marital settlement agreement was executed that listed literary works like Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, then owned by Jack Ryan Enterprises.

"Consistent with the USNI Settlement Agreement, the Marital Settlement Agreement acknowledged Tom Clancy's ownership of the Jack Ryan character, contemplated that Tom Clancy would continue to exploit the Jack Ryan character, and provided for division of revenue that he might receive from exploiting his rights in the Jack Ryan character as part of the division of the marital estate," according to the suit.

It's also noted that Clancy entered into employment agreements with Jack Ryan Enterprises until those were terminated in 1997. Clancy would go on to write other books including The Teeth of the Tiger, featuring the operative character Dominic Caruso, and the Campus books that introduced the character of Jack Ryan Jr.

Alexandra Clancy is also seeking a declaration that both the Dominic Caruso and Jack Ryan Jr. characters are owned by the Estate.

Following Clancy's death, J.W. Thompson Webb, the personal representative of the Estate, has signed agreements with publisher Putnam authorizing more "Tom Clancy" novels. One, Full Force and Effect, features the Jack Ryan character.

The motivation behind the lawsuit can best be explained by the way that royalties get divided. According to the complaint, a third goes to Jack Ryan Enterprises, a third goes to the Estate, while the other third is divided among several parties including an entity called Jack Ryan Limited Partnership. If Alexandra Clancy succeeds in her suit, the full 100 percent would be going to the Estate, and according to court documents, her share of the residue of the Estate is 80 percent, with the rest enjoyed by Tom Clancy's children.

Making the matter all the more provocative, it's said that the lawyer who once represented United States Naval Institute in the '80s dispute is now representing the Estate and parties aligned with Webb.

Baltimore's version of a probate court has ordered that all proceeds from contracts be placed in escrow while telling Alexandra Clancy and her attorney, Jeffrey Nusinov, that they should take this fight to civil court, which they are now doing.

"Mrs. Clancy now asks this Court for a declaration that will ultimately require Mr. Webb to marshal, secure, and account for a signature asset of the Estate — and Tom Clancy's most prized possession — the literary character Jack Ryan, and the characters he created in The Campus book series."

We reached out to Webb for comment and got a response from Miles & Stockbridge attorney Robert Brennan.

"Mr. Webb has acted at all times in a manner consistent with his obligations as personal representative of Mr. Clancy's estate," says Brennan. "As explained in submissions made by Mr. Webb in the Orphans' Court for Baltimore City, Mr. Webb believes the copyright to the character 'Jack Ryan' is owned by Jack Ryan Enterprises, Ltd., a conclusion shared by Mr. Clancy's longtime copyright lawyer. He disagrees with the assertions made by Mrs. Clancy's attorneys in the recently filed complaint. Mr. Webb looks forward to the court’s resolution of the matter and will act on behalf of Mr. Clancy's estate in accordance with the court’s decision."

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