Notoriously litigious Stan Lee Media Inc couldn’t have thought that Disney would respond to its latest Marvel character rights grab in a placid manner, so the company shouldn’t be surprised by the legal hit to the jugular that the House Mickey Built just gave it in federal court over Spider-Man. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. “Making SLMI’s patently frivolous ownership claims [American Music Theater's] defense to a straightforward copyright infringement suit gets neither of them anywhere,” says the March 21 reply (read it here) to the SMLI’s opposition to Disney Enterprises’ motion to dismiss the company from its copyright case against AMT. “This Court should now end this SLMI-financed frolic and detour once and for all,” adds the filing in federal court in Pennsylvania, noting that the intervention lacks any merit to succeed. Last week’s reply comes just under two weeks after SLMI aggressively responded to Disney’s motion to throw them off the media giant’s copyright case against AMT over its allegedly unauthorized use of Spider-Man in its regional show Broadway: Now & Forever. A month after being hauled into court by Disney last September, AMT claimed that it got the rights to Spidey from rights holder SLMI. In December, SLMI, who had lost a claim in federal court in Colorado on several Marvel characters and the multibillion-dollar profits from them just a couple of months before, leapt into the AMT case itself as its latest legal venue.
Long story short: SMLI claims, as it has in four previously unsuccessful court cases, that it owns the rights to several prominent Marvel characters created by Stan Lee during his long and influential stint at the comic book publisher. Marvel owner Disney vehemently disagrees. “SLMI’s ownership claim, which forms the basis of AMT’s attempt to evade infringement liability, is premised solely on its erroneous interpretation of the 1998 Agreement that the Dismissed SLMI Cases have already foreclosed,” says the 21-page filing. “Moreover, it is clear on its face that the parties to the 1998 Agreement intended it to apply only to characters that Stan Lee was to create after 1998 and that it did not effect any transfer of ownership of characters created as works made for hire more than a half-century ago – nor could it have, as Lee has consistently maintained that he never owned any rights in any historic Marvel character.”
If that wasn’t enough of an attempt to finally bury this legal monster, Disney — as it did in its February motion, is wielding the 3-year statute of limitations of the Copyright Act as a very blunt object. “Any claim of copyright ownership under the 1998 Agreement expired at least a full nine years before SLMI asserted its claim in this action, and AMT’s derivative counterclaims and affirmative defenses likewise are barred,” their filing of late last week says.
Of course, SLMI being SLMI, this won’t be over anytime soon even if it is over soon in this particular case. The investor-backed legal actions of the company, which long has had nothing to do with its namesake, always seems to pop up again claiming rights to Marvel heroes in a relentless search for a judge or jurisdiction that will swing its way. In this case, David Landau, Aliza Karetnick, Robert Palumbos and Jessica Priselac of the Philadelphia offices of Duane Morris are representing SLMI. A phalanx of lawyers from NYC and Philadelphia firms are representing Disney Enterprises and Marvel Characters Inc.
Deadline's Dominic Patten - tip him here.