A recent legal move by the estate of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko could result in Marvel losing their respective copyrights over both the web-slinger and the Sorcerer Supreme.
According to two respective Notices of Termination filed with the United States Copyright office on August 26th and brought to widespread attention by Marvel artist JL Mast (Avengers: Millennium Infinite Comic, Thanos: A God Up There Listening Infinite Comic), Patrick S. Ditko, the brother of Ditko and the current administrator of the late artist’s estate, is seeking to revoke Marvel’s copyright over both the Amazing Fantasy Vol. 1 #15 story “Spider Man! [sic],” in which the eponymous wall-crawler makes his first appearance:
And the Strange Tales Vol. 1 #110 debut of Doctor Strange in the appropriately titled, “Doctor Strange Master of Black Magic!”:
If successful, Patrick Ditko’s termination of Marvel’s copyrights would not necessarily require the publisher to stop publishing comics featuring the characters, as they would still retain the trademarks over them, but could see them barred from using any of the elements featured in the two stories.
Thus, items such as Spider-Man’s web-shooters or the Amulet of Agamotto, characters including Aunt May, Uncle Ben, Wong, and the Ancient One, and even both heroes’ costumes, could not be used by Marvel in any comic, film, or other media.
The logistics of copyright termination law are, to say the least, complicated, as noted by Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson (via Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston) attorneys John M. Conley and Nichelle N. Levy in an article written in regard to the historical legal battle between the Siegel estate and DC comics regarding the copyright to Superman.
“The basic rule for works created and assigned prior to 1978 is that termination can be effective any time within a five-year window that opens exactly 56 years from the date copyright was originally secured,” the pair explain. “So, if as in Siegel, a copyright was secured on April 18, 1938, the five-year termination window opened on April 18, 1994. But even if that window is missed, if the work was in its renewal term in 1998, a second five-year window opens 75 years after the date of copyright. “
“Shuster’s heirs are seeking to take advantage of this provision, having given notice of their intent to terminate in 2013 (1938 + 75 years),” they continued. “If a work is first created or assigned after 1978, the termination can generally be effective any time during a five-year window beginning 35 years after execution of the grant.”
Taking these legal provisions into account, the window to terminate the copyright over Spider-Man’s initial publication in 1962 would open in 2018 and end in 2023, while Doctor Strange’s 1963 introduction would make his copyright eligible for termination between 2019-2024.
The U.S. Copyright Office further adds that termination provisions “are intended to protect authors and their heirs against unremunerative agreements by giving them an opportunity to share in the later economic success of their works by allowing authors or their heirs, during particular periods of time long after the original grant, to regain the previously granted copyright or copyright rights.”
Like the Siegel case, it’s possible that such an outcome for Patrick Ditko would subsequently result in comics featuring either Spider-Man or Doctor Strange bearing a disclaimer similar to the “By Special Arrangement With The Family of Jerry Siegel” found on stories featuring the Man of Steel.