Decades-Long Legal Feud Over 'Spawn' Comic Book Finally Ends


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.

Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman have finally made peace after a nearly decades-long lawsuit over the Spawn comic book series. In a settlement agreement brought before a Wisconsin federal judge on Friday, Gaiman has been confirmed as a copyright co-owner of two issues of the Spawn series and three issues of the Angela series in dispute. The protracted litigation was hard fought and illustrated what might be the definitive look at the legal problems that can sometimes arise from creative collaboration.

A review of the many-years-in-the-making settlement starts all the way back in the early 1990s, when McFarlane made a name for himself working with Marvel Comics on Spider-Man. At Marvel, McFarlane quickly built a reputation in the comics community for his amazingly detailed drawings, but reportedly came to realize what other artists had for decades -- Marvel gobbled up intellectual property and offered its workers only modest rewards for their contributions.

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So McFarlane started his own studio, Image Comics, which would seek a different kind of collaborative atmosphere. According to a story in City Pages, "Image had proudly been founded on the principle of creators' rights rather than the work-for-hire system at Marvel."

At Image, McFarlane created Spawn, about a deceased U.S. soldier who is resurrected as a creature from the depths of hell. The comic book was drawn by McFarlane and he invited big-name guest authors, including Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Dave Sim, and of course, Gaiman, to each write a single issue.

By the end of the decade, Spawn had cemented its reputation. It was regularly featured on lists of the best comic book characters of all time. The superhero franchise also launched a movie, an HBO animated series, and a line of action figure toys.

Gaiman, though, felt he deserved a share of the enormous success for contributions he made in the ninth issue of Spawn for three critical characters -- Angela, Cogliostro, and Medieval Spawn.

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In 1997, according to one report, McFarlane and Gaiman struck a swap with each other, whereby McFarlane got these characters and Gaiman took rights to a character named Miracleman that was created by another company and purchased by McFarlane. But the deal soon fell apart over reported trademark issues.

In 2002, Gaiman filed the lawsuit that would last nearly a decade. It led to two major decisions at the federal court level, and in between, there was an appeal that went up to the 7th Circuit and much fussing over accounting.

The jury trial asked whether Gaiman by contract had a copyright interest in the characters he created for Spawn #9 and whether his name and image were improperly used on later works. In 2002, a jury handed Gaiman a victory, finding that McFarlane had promised Gaiman that he'd treat his cohort "better than the big guys" would.

The dispute didn't end there, though.

A controversy soon erupted over spin-offs that were created from the main Spawn series. Gaiman alleged that McFarlane had crafted a work-around by essentially recreating characters with different names, including Dark Ages Spawn and Tiffany. A side-by-side comparison of Gaiman-created characters and McFarlane-created characters was presented, and a judge in 2010 was unimpressed with the differences. According to the very entertaining decision:

"If [McFarlane] really wanted to differentiate the new Hellspawn, why not make him a Portuguese explorer in the 16th century; an officer of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, an idealistic recruit of Simon Bolivar in the 19th century, a companion of Odysseus on his voyages, a Roman gladiator, a younger brother of Emperor Nakamikado in the early  18th century, a Spanish conquistador, an aristocrat in the Qing dynasty, an American Indian warrior or a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I?"

Now, after many years of fighting, the two have come to an agreement. The parties have asked the judge to enter a final judgement in favor of Gaiman, declaring that he is a joint, 50 percent owner of the copyrights to Spawn publications number 9 and 26 as well as Angela issues 1, 2 and 3 and the contents of those publications, presumably including the characters that first appeared in these issues. The parties also have agreed to dismiss all pending claims and bear their respective attorneys' fees and costs. Further details of the agreement, including the profit sharing arrangement haven't been revealed, but the development will likely foreclose any further appeals once a judge has blessed the agreement .


Twitter: @eriqgardner

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