Just like its title character, a copyright lawsuit involving the rights to the Ghost Rider comic garnered new life when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that comic book writer Gary Friedrich can move forward with his copyright lawsuit against Marvel Comics.
Friedrich’s lawsuit alleged that Marvel Comics’ copyright lapsed and reverted back to him, as the author of the work. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics maintains that the character was the product of a collaborative process within the comic book company.
Ultimately, the copyright dispute centers on the terms of a 1978 work-for-hire agreement. In 2011, the district court found that Friedrich had surrendered his rights in the Ghost Rider comic under the contract. However, the appeals court concluded that there are issues of fact to consider at trial and reversed the summary judgment order.
“The agreement is ambiguous on its face,” the three-judge panel concluded. “The contract contains no explicit reference to renewal rights.”
The Second Circuit further agreed that Friedrich might be able to show that the parties did not contemplate that the 1978 copyright agreement would cover the Ghost Rider comic, which was first published in 1972. “It is doubtful the parties intended to convey rights in the valuable Ghost Rider copyright without explicitly referencing it,” Judge Denny Chin wrote. “It is more likely that the agreement only covered ongoing or future work. Hence, there is a genuine dispute regarding the parties’ intent for this form contract to cover Ghost Rider.”
As the date for trial came closer Marvel Comics and Friedrich reached a settlement thereby insuring Marvel’s parent company Disney, that there would not be a trial that could place its interest in the “Ghost Rider” franchise at risk.
As this case highlights, the terms of a work-for-hire agreement must be clear and unambiguous. If not, the court may end up deciding who owns the rights to a lucrative motion picture, song, or other work.
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