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When Columbia Pictures released Ghost Rider in 2007, comic book author Gary Friedrich wasn’t happy.
More than thirty five years earlier, at the age of 28 and inspired by various entertainers including Marlon Brando and Evel Kneivel, Friedrich conceived of a character known as Ghost Rider, also known as Johnny Blaze, a motorcyclist superhero whose head is a flaming skull. There was nothing like it in the Marvel Comics universe at the time and it’s remained popular ever since.
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By the late 1970s, Friedrich had mostly disappeared from the grand world of comics, struggling with alcoholism. It wasn’t until 2004 when Friedrich heard media reports about a planned movie version of Ghost Rider that he spoke up and asserted claims that Marvel, and others didn’t actually have the rights for the film. The 2007 film came out anyway, starring Nicolas Cage, and did pretty good business with more than $230 million in box office receipts. Friedrich felt the exploitation was botched anyway and has been pursuing the various studios behind the film with claims of copyright infringement.
A new Ghost Rider film is scheduled to come out in February, and now Marvel and the various studios will have some peace of mind that they won’t be on the hook for substantial damages. That’s because on Wednesday, a New York federal judge ruled that Ghost Rider clearly belongs to Marvel.
In 1971, Friedrich was a freelancer working with Marvel Comics.
Marvel had produced a Ghost Rider character in the 1950s and early 1960s, but Friedrich’s conception of a new mystical super-hero was entirely different. Friedrich worked to introduce the new Ghost Rider’s origin story in 1972′s Marvel Spotlight #5.
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In doing so, he worked under the so-called “Marvel Method” of creation: The creation of a synopsis. An artist (not the writer) who illustrates work based on the synopsis. The writer taking these illustrated panels and adding text. A “letterer” who places the text in the appropriate places on the illustration. An “inker” who applies color. Finally, the printing and distribution of the comic book.
The “Marvel Method” has led to a host of disputes from legendary comic book creators of that time (see a lawsuit from Jack Kirby, for instance) over authorship for purposes of copyright control. Marvel has always taken the position that these works were made for hire.
In a decision on Wednesday, however, New York federal judge Katherine Forrest says that it’s unnecessary to “travel down the rabbit hole of whether the Character and Work were in fact originally created separate and apart from Marvel, whether they are a ‘work for hire,’ or whether during an initial conversation in which Friedrich obtained consent to proceed with the project that eventually became the Work, he had thoughts about what rights he might want to retain.”
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That’s because the judge looks at two contracts and decides they plainly give copyright authority to Marvel.
The first contract was at initial creation where Friedrich gave rights in exchange for payment. Friedrich believed that he held onto non-comic derivative versions of the work, but…
The second contract was signed in 1978 where Friedrich agreed to grant “to Marvel forever all rights of any kind and nature in and to the Work.”
Judge Forrest says the language of this agreement “could not be clearer” and rejects various arguments such as consideration and adhesion why this contract is not in full force.
“Either of those contractual transfers would be sufficient to resolve the question of ownership,” Forrest wrote. “Together, they provide redundancy to the answer that leaves no doubt as to its correctness.”
Does this end the dispute once and for all?
We wouldn’t bet the house on that just yet.
Friedrich has shown some stamina in litigation, taking his claims from state court to federal court and driving around various legal defeats along the way. The decision could be appealed, and even if it isn’t, by side-stepping the question over whether this was a work-for-hire, the judge might have given Friedrich room to still attempt a termination of the copyright grant.
The decision on Tuesday nevertheless protects the defendants, including Marvel, Columbia Pictures, Hasbro, Johnny Blaze Sportswear, Relativity Media, and dozens of others, from Friedrich’s claim of infringing the Ghost Rider copyright. The judge says it isn’t his now. There shouldn’t be any legal worries about the forthcoming Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and associated merchandise.
As for whether Friedrich intends to pursue his litigation rampage further, his attorney wasn’t available to immediately comment.
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