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Shuster estate’s case may be over, but Superman fight continues

Superman Unchained #1

Superman Unchained #1

Although an appeals court seems to have brought to an end the Joe Shuster estate’s bid to reclaim the artist’s stake in Superman, The Hollywood Reporter reminds us that the fight by Jerry Siegel’s heirs is far from over.

According to the website, attorney Marc Toberoff — he represents both families — is scheduled to file a brief next month on a pending appeal of a March 2013 ruling that affirmed the writer’s family relinquished any claims to the Man of Steel by accepting a 2001 offer from DC Comics that permits the publisher to retain all rights to Superman (as well as Superboy and The Spectre) in exchange for $3 million in cash and contingent compensation worth tens of millions.

Toberoff maintains the Siegels never accepted the DC offer (the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found otherwise), but even if there was a contract, then the publisher failed to perform. That explains the addition last year of the line “By Special Arrangement with the Jerry Siegel Family” to the credits of any DC title featuring Superman, a stipulation of the 2001 agreement.

However, Wright noted that breach-of-contract claims are a matter for state court, and don’t affect the enforceability of the 2001 agreement. So, a separate lawsuit remains an option for the Siegels, even if — or perhaps when — they exhaust their copyright case.

As The Hollywood Reporter points out, while the Siegel heirs still face “incredibly long odds,” their fight isn’t over yet.

Appeals court denies Shuster heirs rehearing in Superman battle

From Action Comics #1

From Action Comics #1

In the latest — and, quite possibly, final — legal blow to the estate of Joe Shuster, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a petition for a rehearing of its November decision that effectively brought to an end what a three-judge panel described as “the long-running saga regarding the ownership of copyrights in Superman — a story almost as old as the Man of Steel himself.”

Deadline reports that the one-page order closes the door to any more petitions for rehearing before the Ninth Circuit, leaving the Supreme Court as the only option left to attorney Marc Toberoff, who last year pledged, “My clients and I are prepared to go the distance.”

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Comics A.M. | Case of Sherlock Holmes rights isn’t over just yet

Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon #2

Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon #2

Legal | As the dust begins to settle on the ruling last month by a federal judge that Arthur Conan Doyle’s first 50 Sherlock Holmes stories have lapsed into the public domain in the United States, out march the analyses pointing out the buts. Chief among them, of course, is the possibility of appeal by the Conan Doyle estate, which contends the characters were effectively incomplete until the author’s final story was published in the United States (the 10 stories published after Jan. 1, 1923, remain under copyright in this country until 2022).

However, Publishers Weekly notes that because U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo didn’t rule directly on that “novel” argument, the estate may be satisfied with the ambiguity of the decision, given that uncertain creators still may seek to license the characters to steer clear of any trouble. Estate lawyer Benjamin Allison also insists that the Sherlock Holmes trademarks remain unaffected, an assertion that puzzles author and scholar Leslie Klinger, who brought the lawsuit. “There is a very good reason why the Estate did not assert trademark protection: The Estate does not own any trademarks,” he told PW. “They have applied for them, and there will be substantial opposition.” There’s more at NPR, The Independent and The Atlantic. [Publishers Weekly]

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LaBeouf takes another swipe at Clowes, proudly posts C&D letter

LaBeouf's purported storyboards for "Daniel Boring"

LaBeouf’s purported storyboards for “Daniel Boring”

After last week hiring a skywriter to pen an apology to Daniel Clowes, Shia LaBeouf appeared to bait the cartoonist Tuesday on Twitter with a photo of the “Storyboard for my next short ‘Daniel Boring,’” an obvious reference to both Clowes’ Eightball serial “David Boring” and the actor’s seemingly unending plagiarism controversy.

But while LaBeouf didn’t get a rise out of Clowes, he did receive a cease-and-desist letter from the cartoonist’s attorney — which the actor promptly posted on the social media platform.

After pointing out that the storyboard drawings are copied from “David Boring,” Clowes’ attorney Michael J. Kump notes that, “if the foregoing isn’t outrageous enough conduct by your client, Mr. LaBeouf in his tweet today plagiarized Mr. Clowes’ own description of ‘David Boring’” as “it’s like Fassbinder meets half-baked Nabokov on Gilligan’s Island.” (Also worth noting: The photos fanned out beneath the drawing are of actors Patton Oswalt and Seth Rogen, who recently mocked LaBeouf’s ongoing Twitter apologies.)

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Comics A.M. | Image has impressive December in bookstores

The Walking Dead, Vol. 19

The Walking Dead, Vol. 19

Graphic novels | Image Comics had a strong December in bookstores, snagging nine slots on BookScan’s Top 20 chart: Eight volumes of The Walking Dead (including the very first one, at No. 4), plus the first Saga collection, which was originally released in October 2012. The first two volumes of Attack on Titan, which are more than a year old, were also on the chart. [ICv2]

Legal | Colleen R. LaRose, aka “Jihad Jane,” was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison for her role in a failed conspiracy to murder Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who drew images of the Prophet Mohammed that offended many Muslims. [The New York Times]

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Comics A.M. | Judge rules Sherlock Holmes is in public domain

Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon #4

Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon #4

Legal | In a decision that will undoubtedly usher in more Holmes and Watson novels, comic books, movies and television, a federal judge has issued a declarative judgment that the elements included in the 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published by Arthur Conan Doyle before Jan. 1, 1923 are in the public domain in the United States. That means creators are free to use the characters and elements from those stories (but not from the 10 published after 1923) without paying a licensing fee to the protective Arthur Conan Doyle Estate Ltd.

The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed early this year by Leslie Klinger, who served as an adviser on director Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes films and with Laurie R. King edited In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of new stories written by different authors. Although Klinger and King had paid a $5,000 licensing fee for a previous Holmes-inspired collection, their publisher received a letter from the Conan Doyle estate demanding another fee; in response, Klinger sued. [The New York Times]

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Shuster heirs seek a rehearing of Superman copyright appeal

Action Comics #1

Action Comics #1

As expected, the attorney for the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster has asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for a rehearing of last month’s ruling that reaffirmed the artist’s estate can’t reclaim his copyright stake in the Man of Steel.

The Ninth Circuit upheld in a 2-1 opinion an October 2012 ruling by a lower court that the Shuster family relinquished all claims to the character in a 1992 agreement with DC Comics in exchange for “more than $600,000 and other benefits,” which included paying Shuster’s debts following his death earlier that year and providing his sister Jean Peavy and brother Frank Shuster with a $25,000 annual pension. U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright had found the agreement invalidated a copyright-termination notice filed in 2003 by Shuster’s nephew Mark Peary.

But in a petition filed Tuesday, and first reported by Deadline, attorney Marc Toberoff insists the Nov. 21 opinion warrants a rehearing by either the three-judge panel or the Ninth Circuit’s full bench “because it contravenes Congress’ clear objectives, and this Court’s carefully-circumscribed decisions.”

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Stan Lee Media takes another stab at Marvel character rights

Spider-manSay 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.

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Ohio state worker downloaded thousands of comics, movies with government computers

From the inspector general's report

From the inspector general’s report

An employee of the Ohio Department of Health has reportedly confessed to illegally downloading, television series and more than 30,000 comic books from torrent sites to state computers.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Edward Jones Jr., who has worked in information technology for the agency since 1992, admitted to the activity during an investigation by the inspector general’s office initiated last year after an allegation by media giant Viacom that copyrighted material had been downloaded using a state IP address.

According to the inspector general’s report, Jones initially suggested that Viacom might have simply detected him downloading “suspicious programs” or viruses to an unauthorized third computer for analysis as part of his job. Shortly after that first interview, in April 2012, Jones reportedly attempted to delete more than 5,000 files from the computer and an external hard drive; investigators were later able to recover those video and comic book files. They also determined that Jones was a member of several torrenting websites, where he both downloaded and uploading files.

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Appeals court refuses rehearing in Jack Kirby copyright battle

Fantastic FourWith just nine words — “It is hereby ordered that the petition is denied” — the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday seemingly ended a four-year effort by the children of Jack Kirby to gain a copyright stake in many of the characters their father created or co-created for Marvel.

As Deadline reports, the Kirby heirs had petitioned for rehearing, either before a panel of the Second Circuit or the full bench of judges, of whether they had the right to file 45 copyright-termination notices in 2009 for some of Marvel’s best-known, and most lucrative, characters, including the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk.

Quickly responding to those notices, Marvel (later joined by then-new parent company Disney) sued to invalidate the heirs’ claims, arguing that Kirby’s creations for the publisher were work for hire, made at the company’s direction and expense, and therefore weren’t eligible for copyright termination. A federal judge agreed, ruling in July 2011 that, as works for hire, the copyrights to those characters belong to Marvel.

The Kirby family appealed, but in August 2013 a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit upheld the district court’s decision, reaffirming that the heirs had no termination rights. The judges also upheld the lower court’s exclusion of expert testimony offered by John Morrow and Mark Evanier on behalf of the Kirby heirs, agreeing that “their reports are by and large undergirded by hearsay statements, made by freelance artists in both formal and informal settings, concerning Marvel’s general practices towards its artists during the relevant time period.”

Grumpy Cat made off (and made money) with Kate Beaton’s joke

grumpy catOn an Internet whisker-deep in cat photos, cat videos and cat memes, Grumpy Cat is the indisputable king — or, rather, queen, as the peevish feline is actually a female named Tardar Sauce. She has her own meme manager, her own book, her own book tour, a litter-pan full of web awards, a movie deal and a company valued at $1 million.

Out of all of that, strangely enough, “meme manager” may give the most pause. (Or is that paws?) Ben Lashes, former frontman for the band Lashes, is profiled, along with his client, in the latest issue of New York magazine, where we learn how he transformed Grumpy Cat from a single link into a furry little industry. (Did we mention the Friskies deal, the coffee line, the plush toys and the T-shirts?)

Among the most popular shirts, Gawker points out, is one that combines a photo of Grumpy Cat with the caption “I HAD FUN ONCE/IT WAS AWFUL,” which, after a stop off at Reddit, where it became attached to the feline, actually originated with cartoonist Kate Beaton’s popular webcomic Hark! A Vagrant! Gawker, which concluded that the best way to get rich from memes is to “steal other memes,” contacted Beaton for her take.

“No, I never authorized anything. And some people will argue that I never wrote the joke, that it’s ‘been around forever,’ she tells the website. “But I made a comic, and one panel became a meme, and that’s fine. The nature of a joke is to take on a life of its own. At some point, the meme was applied to Grumpy Cat, where it fit well. It is only how Grumpy Cat is aggressive about protecting their brand with that joke as part of it that has ever rubbed me the wrong way.”

Indeed, the New York article makes a point of how diligently the people making money from Grumpy Cat police uses of her likeness. “No one’s a chump,” Lashes tells the magazine. “We’ve got a saying over here in team meme: ‘Respect the cat.’ ”

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This Charming Charlie in takedown tussle over Smiths lyrics

charming charlie3

As Morrissey once wrote, “I know it’s over/And it never really began”: This Charming Charlie, the delightful blog that mashed up Peanuts panels with The Smiths lyrics, has closed (at least for now), less than two months after its launch. But the culprit might not be who you think.

Techdirt notes that the blog’s mastermind Lauren LoPrete announced last week that The Smiths license holder Universal Music Publishing Group — rather that Peanuts Worldwide — began inundating her with takedown notices, leading her to advise her readers that she’s ending the Tumblr. However, she isn’t giving up without a fight.

LoPrete tells Motherboard that as soon as she posted the farewell, she began getting offers from lawyers to accept her case pro bono. And so now, with a little help, she’s filing counter-notifications with Tumblr, insisting the mash-ups fall under the fair-use exception of U.S. copyright law.

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Comics A.M. | Archie’s Silberkleit files sexual harassment suit

Nancy Silberkleit

Nancy Silberkleit

Legal | Archie Comics Co-CEO Nancy Silberkleit is in court again, this time claiming sexual harassment by former friend Sam Levitin, who was her liaison to Archie after her legal feud with the company and C0-CEO Jon Goldwater was settled last year. Levitin has responded that Silberkleit “lacks functional communication skills and has an unstable temperament” and has a “venomous and destructive effect” at the company. Levitin asked the court in December to remove Silberkleit as a trustee of the company, and she responded in April with the allegation of sexual harassment against both Levitin and Archie Comics. An outside firm hired by Archie determined that her claims were “unfounded,” and the publisher is not a party in the latest lawsuit. [New York Daily News]

Legal | Jeff Trexler takes an in-depth look at the copyright battle between Marvel and Jack Kirby’s children. [The Comics Journal]

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Studio JMS sues self-publisher in feud over ‘Sidekick’ character

Sidekick #1, featuring the Red Cowl

Sidekick #1, featuring the Red Cowl

In a preemptive move, Studio JMS has sued a self-publisher who threatened legal action over a character in J. Michael Straczynski’s Sidekick. The dispute centers on the Red Cowl, the former masked mentor of the protagonist in the upcoming series from Joe’s Comics and Image Comics.

Straczynski and Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson received a cease-and-desist notice in late May from an attorney representing Richard A. Hamilton of Dial “C” for Comics, insisting that the Cowl (as he was then called) infringes on his client’s trademark and copyright for a costumed character of the same name in the series Miserable Dastards.

According to the lawsuit, filed late last month in federal court in Los Angeles, despite seeing no similarities between the two characters, Studio JMS changed the name to the Red Cowl in hopes of arriving at an “amicable resolution,” and “for other creative reasons.” It’s when Hamilton’s lawyer was notified of the alteration that the conflict got interesting — or at least extremely prickly.

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Ghost Rider lawsuit heads to trial in November

marvel spotlight5Marvel will defend its ownership of Ghost Rider before a jury after a federal judge on Thursday set a Nov. 4 trial for writer Gary Friedrich’s lawsuit against the publisher.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest made the order a little more than two weeks after the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her 2011 decision rejecting Friedrich’s claims that the copyright to the Spirit of Vengeance reverted to him a decade earlier. According to Deadline, Marvel’s lawyers indicated Thursday in a conference meeting that they won’t challenge the appeals court ruling, and will file a motion for a jury trial.

Friedrich, long credited as co-creator of the character with Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog, filed the lawsuit in April 2007, shortly after the release of Columbia Pictures’ Ghost Rider movie, accusing the studio, Marvel, Hasbro and other companies of copyright infringement, false advertising and unfair competition, among other counts. The film grossed $228 million worldwide; the 2012 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, earned $132.5 million.

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