The man who might have created the Marvel Comics superhero/anti-hero Ghost Rider… well, might in fact have created Ghost Rider, and might not have transferred all of his rights in the character forever. In both are true, then Marvel might have infringed upon his copyright many times over, but most significantly recently when it produced the awful, awful Ghost Rider movie of 2007 and the sequel that this writer didn’t even bother to see because the first one was so bad.
On appeal from a summary judgment granted to the defendants (for all relevant intents and purposes, Marvel Comics) by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (by way of the Southern District of Illinois), the Second Circuit reversed the dismissal of plaintiff erstwhile freelance comic book writer Gary Friedrich’s amended complaint alleging infringement on the grounds that Friedrich had, in 1978, assigned to Marvel the renewal term rights he held in Ghost Rider (the character) by way of a form work-for-hire agreement. “The facts,” the Second Circuit notes, with admirable succinctness, “are heavily disputed.”
But what the appellate court took particular issue with is the language of the one-page form purported work-for-hire agreement that Marvel asked Friedrich to sign in 1978, when the current Copyright Act took effect and, among other things, provided specific rules about works made for hire. Marvel, apparently desiring and intending to get its ducks (including Howard) in a row, had its freelancers execute brief, standard contracts purportedly providing that all work would be owned by Marvel. But the language of the agreement—indeed, the “critical sentence defining the ‘Work’ covered,” notes the Second Circuit, “is ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased.” Well, what do you expect, Your Honors? These guys write comic books! You know… for kids!
Mindful that the purpose of the renewal term allowed by the Copyright Act for works still in their initial term of protection on January 1, 1978, is “to provide authors a second opportunity to obtain remuneration for their works” and “to renegotiate the terms of the grant once the value of the work has been tested,” there was no way the Second Circuit was going to let stand the decision that Friedrich had re-granted his rights (whetever they might be) to Marvel in an ungrammatical and ambiguous document. In any event, summary judgment was not appropriate, because of those pesky issues of fact. Indeed, “[t]he district court concluded that genuine disputes of material fact surrounded the authorship of the work, but it nonetheless granted Marvel’s motion [for summary judgment] and denied Friedrich’s.”
Because that’s another thing: When reconsidering the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint, the Second Circuit assumed as true all of the facts as alleged by Friedrich. But there was also Friedrich’s own motion for summary judgment, which the district court had of course denied and which the appellate court had as well to reconsider, to do which it had to then look at the alleged facts in the light most favorable to Marvel. And these include allegations that Friedrich actually had very little if anything to do with the creation of Ghost Rider—one of the sillier “heroes” in the Marvel pantheon, really. At least both Spider-Man and Captain America make cameo appearances in the decision. Now those guys are heroes.
UPDATE: Analysis from Pamela Chestak.