Monday, September 30, 2013

Copyright Law - Second Circuit - Will Ghost Rider Renewal Rights Come Back to Haunt Disney At Trial?

Copyrights in Characters, Literary Works, Collaborative Works, Work-for-Hire, Assignments of Copyright, Renewal of Copyrights

Gary Friedrich Enterprises LLC v. Marvel Characters, Inc., 2013 WL 2477056 (2d Cir. 2013)
Ghost Rider (John Blaze), Marvel Universe Wiki
According to plaintiff, in 1971 Gary Friedrich conceived of and wrote a synopsis of an original story featuring a flame-skulled character clad in leather on a motorcycle called Ghost Rider.  Working with Marvel, Friedrich worked with an artist to flesh out and publish a comic book based on the character. According to Marvel’s version, Friedrich merely presented Marvel with uncopyrightable ideas in 1971.  Because Marvel raised triable issues of fact, the Second Circuit remanded for a trial on the issue of ownership. Additionally, in 1978, Marvel asked Friedrich to execute a “work for hire” agreement.  The issue in this action is if Friedrich was the sole author or a joint author, then who owns the renewal rights? Did the 1978 assignment convey Friedrich’s renewal rights in the pre-existing Ghost Rider character to Marvel? The district court granted summary judgment awarding copyright ownership to Marvel.  The Second Circuit vacated and remanded for trial.  The Second Circuit characterized the operative facts governing ownership of Ghost Rider as “heavily disputed”.  The Second Circuit found the 1978 work-for-hire agreement to be ambiguous and the extrinsic evidence not to be clear as to the parties’ intent.  Additionally, the Second Circuit found Marvel’s evidence going to the statute of limitations issue to also be disputed.  Under the Copyright Act, where copyright ownership has been repudiated, a true owner generally has three years to sue.  Marvel claimed that it repudiated Friedrich’s copyright ownership claim, publicly, privately and through implied repudiation. The Second Circuit did not find Marvel’s copyright notice in the 1971 comic book to be a public repudiation of any renewal rights.  The Court found that Marvel did not expressly repudiate renewal rights until it wrote a letter in 2004, within three years of the action, making Friedrich’s claims timely.  Finally, the court found the evidence of implied repudiation to be unpersuasive.

To read Judges Winter, Chin, and Droney's decision, click here.
 Copyright law, fine art and navigating the courts. All practice, no theory.Copyright Litigation Handbook (Thomson Reuters Westlaw 2012-2013) by Raymond J. Dowd
 Copyright Litigation Handbook on Westlaw

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