As Sony Pictures advances toward a reboot of Masters of the Universe, licensor Mattel has won a significant legal victory that likely clears rights issues on the He-Man franchise.
Last June, Mattel filed a lawsuit against writer Donald Glut, who in 1981 wrote four mini-comics, “He-Man and the Power Sword,” “The Vengeance of Skeletor,” “Battle in the Clouds” and “King of Castle Grayskull.” In the 1980s, Glut was an important writer in the children’s show scene and did work for such shows as Transformers and Spider-Man.
Mattel went to court against Glut because the writer had come forward to assert that he created the Masters of the Universe characters and was entitled to copyright ownership. In reaction, the toy company contended that his contributions fell under the work-for-hire doctrine and that he waited way too long to assert his claim to rights.
Both sides brought summary judgment motions, and last week after an oral hearing, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real declared Mattel the victor.
Masters of the Universe focuses on the conflict between the protagonist He-Man and the villain Skeletor on the planet of Eternia. It was one of the most popular children’s TV shows in the 1980s. A 1987 film version and a 2002 reboot from the Cartoon Network weren’t nearly as successful. Sony and Escape Artists are now working on a new film and are reported to be on the verge of picking a director.
But as the new film is being developed, out came Glut, a former freelancer for Western Publishing Company, who according to Mattel, was hired in 1981 to write a “backstory” for the characters in what was then the company’s new boys’ brand. Three decades later, the nature of Glut’s working relationship became the focus of the lawsuit.
Glut argued that Mattel couldn’t produce the specific work-for-hire agreement that would make the toy company the statutory author of the work. Glut contended that he instead licensed He-Man to Mattel and that such a license was subject to termination in 2016.
In response, Mattel put forward other agreements to support the proposition that the parties had understood that Masters of the Universe was a work-for-hire. The plaintiff pointed to statements that Glut had made over the years confirming as much. And if there was any confusion, Mattel added, Glut had a legal obligation to come forward much sooner with an objection.
“If one were to write a law school hypothetical to teach when it is appropriate to apply the equitable doctrine of laches, one might borrow from the story of Defendant Donald F. Glut,” said Mattel in its summary judgment motion. “Defendant’s story provides a textbook example of a party who unreasonably delayed in asserting copyright ownership in a written work to the extreme prejudice of the ostensible copyright holder, Plaintiff Mattel Inc.”
Glut’s attorneys argued that his delay wasn’t unreasonable because he asserted his claim fell within the statutory termination period provided for in the Copyright Act.
But Mattel’s lawyers including Larry Iser at Kinsella Weitzman were able to rebut this by framing the dispute as one over ownership. If Glut’s comics were created as a work-for-hire, Mattel said, Glut never owned the copyright, could never have licensed it and therefore couldn’t have terminated it. Given Mattel’s exploitation of the brand over the years, Glut could have filed a lawsuit earlier.
A full written order hasn’t been issued yet, but at the oral hearing, the judge agreed with Mattel’s arguments over laches and also pointed to the evidence supporting Glut’s work as being commissioned by Mattel as a work-for-hire.