The resulting legal fight lasted five years, with claims, counterclaims, and appeals. In 2014, it came within a whisker of landing before the Supreme Court, with the Writer’s Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild—among others—filing amicus briefs arguing against Marvel. The day before the Court went into conference to decide whether or not to take the case, Marvel opted to settle. As Dominic Patten noted in his coverage for Deadline, the resulting agreement likely came from panic. The company would have had to negotiate with the Kirby family for everything, including back-royalties on hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and rights for the Avengers characters (something the family could have fairly demanded millions for).
There were further implications Marvel wanted to avoid as well. “A wide variety of copyrights across the industry, including those at Warner Bros and DC Comics, would suddenly be in play,” Patten wrote. Freelancers or those with work-for-hire status—such as writers and composers—could gain rights to their work, as if they were traditional employees.
The long battle between Kirby and Marvel had—for now—been laid to rest.
While the details of the 2014 settlement between Marvel and the Kirby family are secret, it’s likely—given the amount Marvel stood to lose if the case went to trial—that the terms were generous. But while Kirby’s family may have finally gotten some measure of compensation, they are very much the exception.
The history of comics creators getting shafted as their work went on to make thousands is a long one. A quick sampling of names: Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, who lost ownership of their creation and were cast aside, only receiving cover credits and meager financial compensation in the late 1970s. There’s also Bill Finger, who did the majority of work creating Batman only to see his co-creator Bob Kane walk away with a contract for sole credit and royalties, which he largely maintains to this day.
Bill Mantlo, the creator of Rocket Raccoon, has substantial medical bills and his family often requests help from the public in meeting them.* Gary Friedrich, one of the creators of Ghost Rider, attempted to sue Marvel for control of the character, only to be hit with a countersuit demanding $17,000 in damages for the author’s sale of unlicensed merchandise at conventions, a commonly accepted practice. And who can forget Alan Moore, who produced the seminal graphic novel Watchmen under an agreement that the rights would revert to him when it went out of print, only to find that DC had no intention of allowing that to happen.
It’s a well known fact in the comics industry and fandom that while superhero films make hundreds of millions at the box office, many creators of classic characters rarely see a dime for their work. They often have to rely on charity organizations like the Hero Initiative—founded to help comic artists in financial need—if they’re alive, and they have little to leave to their families after they’re dead. This is, of course, completely legal under current definitions of copyright law, regulations that have been repeatedly altered to help protect the corporations that hoard intellectual property. But it’s also the sort of thing the companies in question largely prefer not to talk about. Marvel’s “Kirby Week” content all links to Kirby4Heroes, a program created by Kirby’s granddaughter Jillian that raises money for the Hero Initiative while neglecting to discuss why such a program might need to exist.