“Disney always wins.” According to my copyright law professor (Hook ‘Em, Horns), that’s the first rule of copyright law. A quick search online shows that there are 188 cases where Disney is a party and copyright issues are mentioned. I haven’t checked all of those cases but I’ll assume that my professor was right and that Disney generally wins.
But now Stan Lee Media, Inc. – the defunct company co-founded by that master of marvels and superheroes – has decided to take on the mighty mouse. I’m currently obsessed with Marvel, thanks to Avengers being released on DVD, the new Iron Man trailer, and the new book on the history of Marvel (which I’ll be discussing next week). So now Stan Lee Media is suing Disney. What’s next?
It looks like a tough case. Stan Lee Media is claiming that, just two weeks before signing a contract with Marvel, Stan Lee himself signed a contract with Stan Lee Media assigning the rights to all of the characters he had created (or would create) to it. So Stan Lee Media is claiming that it – not Marvel – owned the various Stan Lee characters that have made billions for Disney, including Spider-Man, the X-men, and most of the Avengers. It’s claiming that Disney owes it $5.5 billion for copyright infringement as a result of Disney’s use of these characters.
This kind of dispute about who promised what and when is tough enough, but Stan Lee Media faces a bigger hurdle: res judicata. Stan Lee Media has made this claim about Lee assigning his characters to it first before and lost (although that decision is being appealed). The doctrine of res judicata says that parties can’t relitigate issues that were or could have been raised in a previous lawsuit that is final. Because Disney purchased its rights from Marvel, it would stand in Marvel’s shoes and can say that this issue has previously been litigated. As a result, it would argue that Stan Lee Media is barred from pursuing these claims again.
Stan Lee Media is trying to avoid this barrier by claiming that Disney’s own conduct since 2009 is actionable. Stan Lee Media argues that this suit should therefore be able to continue even if Stan Lee Media loses its appeal of the previous case. Disney isn’t scared, though, stating that this lawsuit is without merit. And now, just like in Lee’s own comic books, we’re going to have to wait for the next issue of this comic saga to find out if Disney will prevail once again!