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Copyright and The King

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The good folks at The Lawyers Weekly have published a short article of mine about the reversionary interest under Canadian copyright law.  Wait – it’s actually more interesting, and more consequential, than it sounds.

A handful of individuals can count on being called “King” — the next heir to the throne of England, for instance, or Elvis Presley. But for aficionados of comic book art, only one man earns the sobriquet: Jack “the King” Kirby.

Co-creator of fictional legends such as Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men, Kirby is also widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential artists in the history of what is referred to as “sequential art.” Kirby passed away in 1994, but the traditional proclamation, “The king is dead; long live the king!” remains apt: Kirby’s heirs are embroiled in legal proceedings with Marvel Comics, arguing that they are rightfully the sole or joint owners of copyright in various characters created by Kirby. The heirs claim entitlement to a share of profits earned from various derivative works based on those characters, a potentially vast sum—gross revenues from just the North American theatrical release of the three most recent X-Men movies exceed $600 million.

As I noted in the article, Section 14 of the Copyright Act (Canada) provides that, 25 years after an author dies, the copyright in any works which the author created and for which the author was the first owner of copyright (so, basically, excluding works created “in the course of employment”) reverts back to the estate of the author.  Jack Kirby’s heirs are attempting to claim ownership of various properties created by Kirby by making use of a somewhat similar provision under US copyright law.  The article sets out my critique of the reversionary interest and why I think it is a provision whose continued existence is difficult to defend.

I should also note a brief update on the story hook for the article: Eriq Gardner, writing at THR, Esq., notes that Marvel Comics has won an early round in the ongoing litigation.

UPDATE: One item in the published piece requires correction.  It is incorrect to state that the estate of Joe Shuster has obtained a court ruling granting it a share of copyright in the Superman character beginning in 2013.  Rather, the estate of Joe Shuster, Siegel’s partner and Superman co-creator, filed termination notices with the U.S. copyright office in 2003 which, if valid, will allow the estate to recapture Shuster¹s share of the copyright starting in 2013.

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