In December 2011, NiC covered the case of Gary Friedrich, the comic book writer who claims credit for inventing the flaming-skulled, motorcycle-riding hero of Marvel Comics. Friedrich’s case had been moved to New York federal court in 2008. Friedrich essentially claimed that his contract with Marvel gave them the rights to Ghost Rider in comic-book form only, but that he was entitled to compensation from the Ghost Rider movies starring Nicholas Cage. Back in December 2011, things went bad for Friedrich when federal judge Kathleen Forrest found that Friedrich had relinquished all of his rights to Marvel.
This kind of case is not entirely unique. When a writer or artist goes to work for a comic book company, the disposition of rights to characters created by that individual are generally going to be covered by their contract. One would expect, and it is likely the case today, that a comic company such as Marvel would claim the rights to use any characters created in their contract with the individual in any medium. Often employment contracts will require that any characters created by the employee while they are on salary are the property of the company. Of course, there are also “work for hire” contracts and other contracts which are more on a per-case basis, like an independent contractor. There was a famous case where Neil Gaiman claimed joint ownership of some characters he created for Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” comic book. It is a well-written opinion very worth reading for those interested in copyrights of characters.
Regardless though, when Ghost Rider first appeared as Johnny Blaze with the flaming skull in 1972, perhaps comic companies were not as concerned with movie rights, since there weren’t a lot of comic book movies in those days. At issue in Friedrich’s case was a 1978 agreement he signed with Marvel. Earlier this week a unanimous three judge panel on the federal Court of Appeals found that Friedrich’s case should not have been dismissed. The time frame of finally having an appeal on a 2011 ruling heard in mid-2013 is fairly typical, demonstrating that justice is often slow in the underfunded court system. The Court found that the 1978 agreement’s definition of “Work” was “ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased.” Furthermore, the Court also found that the 1978 agreement was not clear on how it pertained to work done 6 years earlier, since Johnny Blaze first appeared in 1972. Thus, the Court found that ownership of Ghost Rider in movie form is genuinely in dispute and the case will continue at the trial level. That is important to note: just because Friedrich won the appeal does not mean that he won the case, it just means that his case is allowed to continue. Friedrich’s lawyer, Charles Kramer, stated that Friedrich will continue to pursue the case “aggressively and vigorously” following the Appellate Court’s 48 page ruling.