Characters In Dispute

DreamWorks Paramount/Everett Collection

Pow! THR breaks down the heroes and heroines mired in litigation and why.


Owner: DC Comics/Warner Bros.

Dispute: With the help of copyright lawyer Marc Toberoff, the estates of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist) have been attempting to terminate decades-old grants of rights and take control of the franchise.

Status of Litigation: A federal judge has ruled that termination notices are valid. By 2013, the heirs could control the early comics, which include Superman's costume, Clark Kent and his origin story. Seeking more, the estates are appealing elements like Lex Luthor and kryptonite. Warners (in production on a new Superman movie) argues that the estates cut illegal deals and that Toberoff interfered with its rights.


Owner: Disney

Dispute: The estate of Stephen Slesinger, a pioneer of the licensing business who acquired rights to Winnie the Pooh in 1931 and licensed them to Disney, is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in owed royalties.

Status of Litigation: The Slesingers have been pursuing Disney for three decades. They scored a win five years ago when a federal judge refused to terminate original creator A.A. Milne's copyright grant to Slesinger, but then suffered a loss in 2009 when a judge let Disney off the hook for infringement. The fight is likely to heat up with July's release of a new Pooh film.


Owner :Marvel

Dispute: The estate of comic book legend Jack Kirby is attempting to terminate early copyright grants of more than 45 characters.

Status of Litigation: In September, the Kirby estate sent notices of termination to Marvel, as well as licensees Sony, Fox, Universal and others. Marvel hit back with a lawsuit in New York federal court that claims Kirby's creations in the 1960s were "works-for-hire" and thus not subject to termination. The suit is in the preliminary stages.


Owner :Marvel

Dispute: Those controlling Stan Lee Media Inc. claim that its founder, comics icon Stan Lee, improperly transferred the company's intellectual property to Marvel when he left to rejoin his former employer in 2005.

Status of Litigation: SLMI shareholders have been largely unsuccessful. However, in 2010, a Colorado judge approved the election of a new SLMI board of directors, and earlier this year a California judge lifted a stay on the proceedings. If SLMI's claims survive further pre-trial motions, the case could head to a jury.


Owner: Todd McFarlane

Dispute: Author Neil Gaiman, invited by Spawn creator McFarlane to write an issue of the comic, claims to be a co-copyright owner of several characters featured in later derivative works.

Status of Litigation: Gaiman has been successful so far, first winning a 2002 royalty fight and then in August getting a federal judge to declare that similar characters later made by McFarlane were substantially similar to Gaiman's own creations. The judge ordered royalties to be paid, and the parties have been delivering status reports in the still-open case. No appeal has been filed.


Owner: Public Domain/Various Parties

Dispute: The family of creator Max Fleischer attempted to be declared the copyright and trademark owner in pressing a lawsuit for infringement against several merchandising companies.

Status of Litigation: In February, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Fleischer estate had failed to establish a chain of custody over Boop in her 70 years of existence. In May, the MPAA and others submitted a brief that urged a rehearing of the dispute, arguing that a panel of justices had narrowed trademark claims to purely aesthetic features, which would have "far-reaching consequences for brand owners."


Owner: Warren Beatty

Dispute: Beatty claimed that bankrupt Tribune Media acted wrongly in trying to retrieve rights to Dick Tracy, which it had assigned to Beatty with the stipulation that it could reclaim the character if not exploited for a certain length of time.

Status of Litigation: In March, a federal judge found that Beatty's taping of a 2008 Dick Tracy special had satisfied the conditions of the rights transfer and that he retained the character. No appeal has been filed.


Owner: Relativity Media

Dispute: The Weinstein Co. claims it has rights to distribute a filmed adaptation of the popular comic book character and that Relativity has breached a contract by shopping rights to another studio.

Status of Litigation: In June, a Los Angeles judge sent the case to an arbitrator, who will also look at Relativity's countersuit claiming that TWC's botched release of Nine left it with a shortage of cash to properly release a Crow movie.


Owner: DreamWorks Animation

Dispute: The Jack Black-voiced fighting panda movies are the subject of two lawsuits from writers claiming they first came up with the idea.

Status of Litigation: Both cases are still in the preliminary stage. Terence Dunn filed first and claims he had phone conversations with DWA executives before they made the film. DWA recently filed a motion to dismiss the suit, claiming the movie was under way for a year when it had discussions with Dunn. Meanwhile, artist Jayme Gordon has pressed his own case, even including detailed character drawings.


Owner: 20th Century Fox

Dispute: The family of Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian licensed the rights for new Chipmunks films to Fox but now claims co-copyright in the Squeakquel screenplay and half the profits from the film's success.

Status of Litigation: At issue is whether Fox stole part of a Bagdasarian family member's script or whether the licensing included such rights. A federal judge sent the matter to arbitration, but the family is appealing that decision.