Comic Fodder

Copyrights for Kirby

Recap: The children of Jack Kirby have sent notices of termination to Marvel, Disney, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures. This is the opening maneuver to announce that they hold the copyright for these comic characters, and if anyone wants to use them, they will have to reach a negotiated settlement with the Kirby estate.

A ton of fans are taking Marvel's side, but these are the same fans that dump on Marvel every day on the message boards. What's going on here? It might seem a little strange at first glance, to see little guys trying to support the comparative goliath that Marvel is, versus an issue concerning their well-known mistreatment of Jack Kirby.

Too many people read the headlines only and then jump to conclusions, so a ton of folks are under the impression that lawsuits are flying already. They're not. The Kirby estate is working along the lines of current law, and the time frames of the creation of the original artwork define when they would be allowed to send out copyright termination notices. That time frame is now open, and they are trying to reassert the ownership of Jack Kirby to various works. This kind of preparation is not something that can be done in a week or two, and I am guessing that the plans for this were laid in the past, when the Kirbys were made to understand how the changes in copyright law might alter the status quo.

One of the first things to note is that the Kirby estate is not only allowed to do this, but the law was changed this way when Sonny Bono was in Congress specifically to encourage them to do so. If the Kirbys are successful, the rights will not revert back to them for a while, because there is a ten-year notification window when you want to terminate the copyright use. In this case, the first characters that the Kirby estate would "get back" are the Fantastic Four in 2017, with others to follow in the years after that. So change isn't coming soon, this is just the notification stage.

To be sure, if the parties do not reach an amicable agreement, there will be lawsuits, and it will all be decided in court. There are reasons for both sides to be afraid of what a third party judicial system might decide in its attempt to ferret out justice in this case. The big companies have more to fear, in light of the many court wins by the Siegel estate, winning back a number of rights concerning a character you might have heard of once or twice: Superman. The same legal firm that has won those court battles is representing the Kirby estate. You think that side might be a little better prepared than Marvel, Universal, or those other companies right now?

I'm going to set aside too much legal examination for now and focus on one aspect that nobody is examining right now: the "family dispute" between Marvel and the fans.

See, Marvel is part of our family. They do all sorts of things that a big (evil?) corporate entity does, and sometimes they do other boneheaded things too. They ship titles late, raise prices too much, kill my favorite character, and then upset me by bringing him back, so that I can't even count on death as a constant. What does that leave me with, taxes?

We love to pick on Marvel and DC. Especially online. So when the news broke about the Kirby estate, half of the net started cheering for Kirby, but why did the other half start cheering for Marvel? Because even though it can be a jerk, Marvel is OUR jerk. We don't like it when other people that might be seen as outsiders come in and start making jokes. It's why we can make a joke deriding a character in the comic store and everyone laughs, but if a movie reviewer makes the same comment in a newspaper, we hurl curses at the guy and ask, "Who does he think he is, to be insulting (insert favorite character here) like that?"

Some of this might be countered over time, because if any of the internet mobs stop to examine the history, they will learn how horribly Marvel behaved toward Jack Kirby at the time, and how they singled him out in an insulting way, in an attempt to secure their rights to their cash cow characters like Hulk, the Fantastic Four and others. This was a time when Marvel was scared of lawsuits, scared of any precedent admitting a creator might have rights, and basically just plain scared. Jack Kirby didn't help matters any when he made the occasional legal threat himself, but he was frustrated and sure that he held the right side of the argument, and he was the type of guy that said the truth about core principles out loud, even if it made things awkward. That said, perhaps if he hadn't made a couple of those remarks, the executive suits at Marvel wouldn't have been so nervous.

So maybe both sides contributed to the tragedy that followed, but when the copyright law changed, it opened the door so that the children of Jack Kirby would have a chance at doing something to restore proper credit where it belonged concerning the creation of these popular icons, and yes, even steer some money back to Kirby's children, too. Comment after comment derides the Kirby kids for pursuing this, assuming they are greedy people leaching off of daddy's accomplishments, when none of them had any direct hand in the creations themselves.

Well guess what? Everything that Jack Kirby did, the entire motivation for him to put out such a massive amount of work as he did, putting almost every modern comic book artist to shame with his pace and work ethic, was for one purpose: to provide for his family. The payments from comics paid for his car, for his house, for medical bills. For food for the wife and kids. Some uneducated comments have suggested Kirby would have wanted the rights of those characters to stay where they are with Marvel, but I can guarantee you, he would have wanted the benefits to go to his kids. I would prefer the same if I had children, and so would you, let's be honest.

Why would somebody make that kind of statement in the first place? Kirby would have "wanted" the characters to stay with Marvel? That kind of thought process comes from fear, and it's the other main reason fans would side with Marvel. See, we've got a really cool thing going that doesn't happen (hardly ever) in other entertainment forums: we have a shared universe. Spider-Man can guest-star in next month's issue of Captain America. Cyclops could theoretically join the Fantastic Four. All of these characters from separate titles cohabit the same world, and their interactions have helped to create magnificent stories, above and beyond what could have been done if they all had to remain self-contained.

If the Kirby estate succeeds, and they do not reach a proper settlement with Marvel, all of those characters could go away. What would happen to continuity then, all you continuity fans? Could Marvel even be allowed to show the Thing in a flashback? Or would they have to do a white-wash of all of Marvel's history, making the massive ret-cons of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths look like Ant-Man's pinky? Granted, that's a worst-case scenario, and Marvel might already have a plan for that, but that's a story for another time.

The point is that the fans are used to the status quo, and the idea of picking up a copy of the Avengers and never seeing Iron Man or Thor again, of them not being able to team up, makes most loving comic fans cringe. The fear of such a prospect prompts the idea: maybe it wouldn't be bad for the readers if Marvel won this one. I want my heroes all in one place, like always. That fear needs to be set aside in recognition of what is right. The Kirby kids all have regular professions; this is not purely about money. The courts will most likely end up allocating which rights belong to the appropriate parties, and while the Kirbys won't get all of what they are asking, it is highly likely that they will end up with some key portions.

I sincerely believe that if both parties have a desire to maximize the popularity and the income of these characters, everyone will recognize the real synergy that has developed by having these characters inhabit a shared universe. No matter how the copyrights issues are settled, I think Marvel will want to keep their universe intact, even if it means sharing profits with another group. I also tend to think that the Kirby estate will recognize that the existing state of affairs is the best example of a sure thing to continue their profitability.

And hopefully, somewhere in the middle of all of this, somebody will think of the fans and try to keep the family together.

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.