Judge Can't Figure Out Who Owns Rights to "Jack Ryan" Character

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan-Publicity Still-Embed-2019
Jan Thijs/Amazon Studios

Consider it miraculous that Tom Clancy's CIA character of Jack Ryan has appeared so often in movies and a recent Amazon Prime show starring John Krasinski. That's because this literary creation, first seen in The Hunt for Red October, has prompted an ownership dispute for the ages. On Wednesday, a federal judge in Maryland took a crack at unwinding the situation, but after 89 pages of backstory and legal discussion, got no closer to finding an answer on who really owns rights to Jack Ryan. A trial may be coming.

Although there's a lot to take from the summary judgment opinion of U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander (read in full below), we'll narrow the focus as best we can to Jack Ryan given his enduring place in popular culture. The dispute involves a disagreement with the original publisher, a divorce, a death, and enough paperwork to curdle the blood of any non-lawyer.

In 1984, Clancy's The Hunt for Red October came out. The book was published by the United States Naval Institute, which quickly licensed a theatrical film from Paramount Pictures.

Based on the success, Clancy got to work on more stories about Jack Ryan. The author would start a company called Jack Ryan Enterprises, Ltd. (JREL), and license Paramount to make more Jack Ryan films based on Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games. But in 1987, in the midst of negotiations between Clancy and Viacom for a television series based on Patriot Games, a dispute arose over ownership of the Jack Ryan character.

Had Clancy retained rights to Jack Ryan in his contract for The Hunt for Red October with the Naval Institute? Had Clancy kept rights because he allegedly developed the character in Patriot Games first? Those questions were briefly entertained in a proceeding before the American Arbitration Association before the two sides settled. Clancy gave $125,000 to the Naval Institute, which in return agreed to reassign the copyright to The Hunt for Red October to Clancy's JREL.

Thereafter, Clancy and his then-wife Wanda King formed Jack Ryan Limited Partnership (JRLP), which basically became the family's book business. Clancy was technically an employee of the partnership, which made publishing and licensing deals with others. And then in the mid-'90s when Clancy spit from King, he formed yet another company called Rubicon.

Rights were divided and assigned throughout the years, although a degree of confusion has long lingered. For example, in 2008 when Paramount announced it was developing a new movie titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Clancy's then-agent Michael Ovitz wrote to him, "The problem with all of this is that you have no legal way to stop them from using your Jack Ryan character, because long before I met you, prior representatives gave away the rights to use JACK RYAN to Paramount, at their discretion … without your permission OR involvement.”

If that wasn't enough, when Clancy passed away in 2013 at the age of 66, Alexandra Clancy, the author's second wife and widow, stepped forward to assert that ownership rights belonged to the estate. And with agreements then being made for posthumous work including new Jack Ryan books, she also served notices of termination with the intent of recapturing rights to The Hunt for Red October after 35 years.

In short, the rights to Clancy's work — having gone through one contract after another and then divorce and then death and possibly more — was a complete mess, instigating lawsuits.

In her decision this week, Hollander tackles various questions ranging from statute of limitations on claims of ownership to whether a work-for-hire is precluded when an employee also owns the employer. She does rule that Clancy validly assigned rights to works, though it hardly answers the nearly 35-year-old question of ownership of the Jack Ryan character. Had the settlement between Clancy and the Naval Institute achieved assignment of character rights? What if the Naval Institute never owned that?

Hollander acknowledges that characters may be protected independent of stories when they are especially distinctive, but that doesn't decide ownership over Jack Ryan given the ambiguity of agreements. The settlement contained specific language about character rights. The transfer agreements did not. And the parties differ on the meaning of the separation agreement between Clancy and King.

"After the divorce, Clancy wrote seven novels featuring Jack Ryan 'without agreement with, objection by, or payment to the Jack Ryan Entities,'" states one section of this very long opinion. "The fact that he was able to use the Jack Ryan character in these novels supports the view that the provision in the Separation Agreement confirmed Clancy’s retention of ownership of the Jack Ryan character, as plaintiff argues. But, as defendants contend, it could also establish that JREL owned the Jack Ryan character, but that Clancy had the right to use the character in his work as a result of the grant of authorization in the Separation Agreement. In sum, the sources on which both parties rely support their particular interpretations of the agreements, but they are not dispositive."

After several dozen pages, basically the only thing that the judge can conclude is that a reasonable jury could differ on what the evidence suggests. As such, without settlement, this one appears headed to trial.

Here's the full opinion …

Correction: This post originally stated that the United States Naval Institute was division of the U.S. Navy. It's not.