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Filed in federal court in Philadelphia, and first reported by Deadline, Disney’s reply is the latest volley in what began last summer as a relatively straightforward lawsuit against the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based American Music Theatre, which was accused of using unlicensed elements from Spider-Man, Mary Poppins and The Lion King.
However, as the media giant’s attorneys later noted, that “simple case” was “transmogrified” with the surprising assertion that the theater had licensed Spider-Man … from Stan Lee Media, which was named in a third-party counterclaim (it should be noted the license was obtained after Disney filed suit).
The failed dot-com, which hasn’t been connected to its co-founder and namesake in more than a decade, in turn sued Disney on Feb. 7, seeking a jury trial regarding ownership of Spider-Man, and, presumably, other characters co-created by Stan Lee. Disney responded with a motion to dismiss, which was of course opposed by SLMI; the company maintains none of the previous court cases has directly addressed ownership of the characters.
But in Friday’s filing, Disney insists that, “Making SLMI’s patently frivolous ownership claims AMT’s defense to a straightforward copyright infringement suit gets neither of them anywhere.”
It accuses Stan Lee Media and the American Music Theatre of “making misleading and factually incorrect assertions” about the rights conveyed by the frequently referenced 1998 agreement with Lee, a document that forms the heart of SLMI’s claims. While the company has long insisted that Lee, briefly freed from his lifetime contract with Marvel, transferred to its predecessor Stan Lee Entertainment the rights to his creations and likeness, Disney argues that SLMI and the American Music Theatre are purposely avoiding the actual terms of the agreement.
“… Nothing in that agreement even remotely suggests Lee owned any rights in any Marvel character, let alone that he was conveying such rights to SLMI,” Disney’s attorneys assert. “In fact, the 1998 Agreement reflects that it was entered into for the purpose of developing new characters for Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc., and then SLMI to exploit, and not for the purpose of secretly seizing control of characters long-ago created, owned, and openly exploited by Marvel.”
Further, Disney states that Lee couldn’t have transferred any rights to the Marvel characters, simply because he never owned them. That position was echoed by Lee himself in a recent Playboy interview: “I never did [own the rights]. I was always a Marvel employee, a writer for hire and, later, part of management. My role at Marvel is strictly honorary. Marvel always owned the rights to these characters. If I owned them, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.”
Reiterating arguments made in its February motion, Disney again contends SLMI is barred from pursuing its claims by the U.S. Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations and by previous court rulings.