California work contracts influenced by Kirby copyright ruling

Super heroes have raked in millions if not billions of dollars in Los Angeles movie studios and theaters around the world. The screen stars of today were not imagined by modern minds. Heroes like Iron Man and Spider-man have been outwitting bad guys for generations on the pages of comic books.

Marvel Comics benefited considerably from the works of late comic book legend Jack Kirby. Kirby’s artistic talents contributed to the invention of the “X-Men” and “The Fantastic Four,” among a host of other come-to-life heroes who dominate today’s blockbuster movies.

Jack Kirby’s four children felt their father’s body of work for Marvel Comics was never fully recognized or remunerated. The heirs filed a copyright lawsuit against the comic book publisher which was appealed by Kirby’s survivors after an unfavorable 2011 decision.

A federal court recently affirmed the earlier court’s ruling. Marvel Comics retained rights to the characters Kirby helped to create as a freelance comic book artist.

The courts agreed Kirby’s creativity was an extraordinary bonus for Marvel Comics. The judges acknowledged the late artist may have been undervalued and underpaid but felt the copyright issue was separate.

Kirby was listed as “employee for hire” in the original contract forged with Marvel Comics. According to the testimony of retired Marvel president, 87-year-old Stan Lee, Kirby fulfilled assignments given to him by the publisher. The projects were ordered by Marvel not “self-directed” by Kirby; the artist was a contract worker.

The court’s also noted the employment agreement restricted Kirby from selling the work he did for Marvel back in the 1950s and 1960s to other comic book publishers.

It was not for the courts to decide whether the artist was fairly compensated in the contractual agreement. The Kirby case provides a lesson for businesses and contractors. Intellectual property rights must be clear and understood from the beginning of any working relationship, and attorneys are there to do exactly that for their clients.

Source:, “Marvel’s Win Against Kirby Heirs Affirmed” Lorraine Bailey, Aug. 09, 2013