Marvel Worldwide, not the heirs of legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby, owns the rights to the iconic characters "Spider-Man," "Iron Man," "The Mighty Thor" and "The Incredible Hulk, a federal judge in New York ruled Thursday.
Kirby's heirs claimed that the artist, who died in 1994, created the characters and owned their copyrights.
They also claimed copyright to lesser characters such as "Ant-Man," "Nick Fury" and "The Rawhide Kid," and to "The Fantastic Four," "The X-Men" and "TheAvengers."
Marvel said it owned the characters.
In a 50-page decision, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon sided with Marvel.
She ruled that Kirby was a freelance artist and that his was "work for hire," and that Marvel editor Stan Lee wrote outlines for comics.
"The artists were always constrained by Lee's plot outlines," she wrote. "Lee retained the right to edit or alter their work, or to reject the pages altogether and not publish them if he did not like them."
The judge wrote that Kirby "participated in the creation" of the characters, but didn't own them.
"The Kirby Works were created at the instance and expense of Marvel," she wrote. "Therefore, Marvel is presumed to be their 'author,' and the holder of the statutory copyright as a matter of law."
She also noted that "Kirby took on none of the risks of the successes of the many comic books he helped produce. His contribution to the enterprise was plainly critical, but Marvel, not he, bore the risk of its failure."
The decision includes this note about "The Incredible Hulk":
"In that first issue, The Hulk had gray skin. However, the printer could not produce a consistent shade of gray throughout the book. By the second issue The Hulk had acquired his now-recognizable green skin. Lee picked the color green because there was no other green hero at the time."
Disney, which now owns Marvel, issued a written statement saying, “We are pleased that in this case, the judge has confirmed Marvel’s ownership rights.”
Kirby's family's lawyer, Marc Toberoff, did not return several messages left at his office Thursday.