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Say what you will about the shareholders of Stan Lee Media, but despite suffering one loss after another in their decade-long battle for the rights to Marvel’s best-known characters, they’re still unwilling to concede defeat.
In papers filed Tuesday in federal court in Philadelphia, and first reported by Deadline, the failed dot-com now seeks a declaratory judgment that it, and not Disney or Marvel, owns Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, Thor and other superheroes.
The move, which comes just three months after an annoyed federal judge dismissed their multibillion-dollar claim against Disney, springs from a lawsuit filed in September by the media giant against the American Music Theatre, which is accused of using elements of Spider-Man, Mary Poppins and The Lion King in a stage revue without permission. In a surprise twist, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based theater responded last month that it has a license to use Spider-Man and numerous other Marvel heroes — through an exclusive agreement with Stan Lee Media. Somewhat conveniently, American Music Theatre filed a third-party counterclaim against Stan Lee Media, opening the door for Tuesday’s filing.
Here’s where we take the customary break for a primer on Stan Lee Media, which, it’s important to note, hasn’t had a connection to its co-founder and namesake for a long time: In 1998, Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter used the company’s bankruptcy to end its $1 million-a-year lifetime contract with Stan Lee, negating the writer’s assignment to the company of his rights to his co-creations. It also freed Lee to form Stan Lee Entertainment, which later merged with Stan Lee Media, with infamous entrepreneur Peter F. Paul. That company in turned filed for Chapter 11 in February 2001. Shortly after SLM emerged from federal bankruptcy protection in 2006, its shareholders began a series of lawsuits — against Marvel, Lee, Disney and others — to assert the company’s stake in Lee’s Marvel co-creations. All of those efforts have been unsuccessful.
All of the lawsuits filed by SLM’s shareholders hinge on a sequence of events that took place between August 1998, when Marvel terminated Lee’s employment, and November 1998, when Lee entered into a new agreement with the House of Ideas and signed over his likeness, and any claims to the characters. Stan Lee Media has long asserted that on Oct. 15, 1998, Lee transferred to that company the rights to his creations and his likeness. SLM claimed in a 2012 lawsuit that neither Marvel nor Disney, which bought the comic company in 2009, ever registered Lee’s November 1998 agreement with the U.S. Copyright Office. Therefore, the plaintiffs argued, they actually own the Marvel characters.
Barring likely appeal, September ruling seemingly pulled the brakes on SLM’s fight against Disney, as U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez wrote that the plaintiff is “precluded from re-litigating the issue of its ownership of copyrights based on the 1998 Agreement,” adding that it would be “futile” to permit Stan Lee Media to amend the lawsuit.
However, Stan Lee Media argues in the new filing that in granting Disney’s motion for dismissal, Martinez never actually addressed the merits of its ownership claims. The company also asserts that its recorded copyrights to the characters co-created by Lee predate and, therefore, trump, any claims by Disney and its subsidiaries.