Who Owns The Film And TV Rights To Marvel Characters?

by Jack Kornblatt

051222C-1024x536 Who Owns The Film And TV Rights To Marvel Characters?One of the biggest drivers of comic book speculation is the prospect that a character will show up in a movie or TV show.  With so many different companies owning some or all of the rights to different Marvel characters, it can be difficult to understand which characters are allowed to appear in what movies.  The goal of this article is to try and clear up some of that confusion so speculators can be maximally informed and make investment decisions with confidence.

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Understanding the Decision Points and Results

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  1. Not every character that Marvel publishes first appeared in a Marvel comic.
  2. Marvel published many comic books for licensed properties over the years, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Micronauts.  In most situations, the licensor owns the rights to characters that first appeared in licensed comics
  3. The rights to Machine Man are owned by Marvel, even though the character first appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey
  4. The film distribution rights to solo Hulk films and his related characters are owned by Universal Studios.  This is why no solo Hulk films have been created since Marvel was purchased by Disney
  5. In 2014, Sony Pictures was hacked by the North Korean government out of anger over the negative depiction of King Jong Un in The Interview.  Documents from this hack were ultimately published by WikiLeaks, including the contract between Marvel and Sony.  That contract contained specific provisions about anthropomorphic or mashup characters
  6.  Those leaked documents contain specific terms about which character rights were owned by Sony and which were retained by Marvel
  7.  For characters that first appeared after 9/15/11 (the day that Marvel and Sony signed an amended agreement): if that first appearance was in the pages of a Spider-Man comic or the comic of another character Sony owns the rights to, then Sony owns the rights to that character as well.  Otherwise, Marvel retains the rights.
  8. For characters that first appeared prior to 9/15/11, if a plurality of the character’s appearances were in the pages of a Spider-Man comic or the comic of another character that Sony owns the rights to, then Sony owns the rights to that character as well.  Otherwise, Marvel retains the rights
  9. Although Kingpin started as a Spider-Man villain, he is arguably THE villain for Daredevil.  As a result, his rights are split between both Marvel and Sony
  10. The leaked documents contain specific provisions regarding Zombie, Ape, or What If? versions of characters
  11. The Marvel-Sony deal specifies that Sony’s ownership does not extend to animated television shows with episodes shorter than 45 minutes.  This overrides all other previous provisions
  12.  Jessica Drew is a very unique situation.  The character has almost no association with Spider-Man, but was originally created to preserve a Spider-Man-related trademark.  Furthermore, would be very easy for someone not familiar with the character to assume she is just a female Spider-Man.  As a result, Sony can use Jessica in films and TV shows as long as she is depicted as Spider-Woman.  Marvel, on the other hand, may use her as long as she is not associated with any Spider elements.
  13. The Sony / Marvel agreement contains many specific provisions about the rights to characters that originated in cartoons for characters owned by Sony
  14. Except for the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon, the rights to all characters that originated in pre-1994 cartoons are frozen.
  15. Namor’s film and television rights are the same as the Hulk’s
  16. Marvel bought the rights to Angela, Miracle Man, and the Ultraverse and thus owns them
  17. This provision covers characters like Phil Coulson, who originated in the MCU and thus is owned by Marvel

Frozen – the character cannot be used by Marvel or Sony without specific additional negotiations.  This is how Spider-Ham was able to appear in Into the Spider-Verse, even though he falls under the provisions of decision point 5. spider-hamthumb-e1652368460165-235x300 Who Owns The Film And TV Rights To Marvel Characters?

Conclusion

I hope this has helped to clarify the confusing situation around the film and television rights to various Marvel characters.

Want more 101?

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 Let me know what you think in the comments!

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4 comments

jamesplayuh May 15, 2022 - 5:10 pm

This is a fantastic article. Lots of research went into it and that is much appreciated.

Reply
Lou LaRocca May 15, 2022 - 5:54 pm

Thank you for this highly informative article, one of the best GoCollect has ever produced.

I’m curious to understand how the very first question in Box 1 would be answered for a character like Thor, who has clearly existed for centuries in mythology and has been seen in pre-Marvel comics, non-Marvel comics, and in many other media over the years. For the purposes of this diagram, I assume that “Thor” would be defined strictly as the Jack Kirby / Stan Lee character introduced in Journey Into Mystery #83. But how do the intellectual property lawyers create an air-tight definition to protect their rights in such a character?

To take a recent example … when a TV show called “Ragnarok” came out in Norway in 2020 with Thor and Loki characters, it seems pretty clear that Disney/Marvel didn’t have an infringement case, and I imagine they weren’t too bothered by it at all. So, what specifically would need to be true about a particular Thor adaptation to get the lawyers’ attention and create a potential lawsuit?

Reply
Jack Kornblatt May 15, 2022 - 8:33 pm

Hey Lou, thank you so much for your kind words, I really appreciate it. So to answer your question, you are correct that the definition would be limited to the Thor that first appeared in JiM #83. Thor would probably be a bit harder to prove a copyright infringement case for, but it’s definitely still doable. So things like his outfit / character design, villains, and Marvel-specific history would all be completely defensible in court, as those are all specific to the Marvel Comics version of Thor. Distinguishing where the mythology starts or stops would definitely not always be clear cut and I am sure that any copyright registration for Thor would have several provisions acknowledging that ambiguity.

Reply
Sean May 16, 2022 - 4:01 pm

Extremely informative Jack! This article really helps clear up the muddy waters of the film industry, especially the flowchart.

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