Marvel’s ‘Ghost Rider’ Dispute Headed Back to Court

Appeals panel rules lower court should not have rejected Gary Friedrich's rights claims

Last Updated: July 24, 2014 @ 12:26 PM

"The Ghost Rider" lawsuit filed by writer Gary Friedrich over rights to the Marvel Entertainment character returned to life Tuesday with an appellate court ruling that a lower court shouldn’t have dismissed Friedrich’s suit seeking compensation for Marvel’s continued use of the character.

In an unusually long 48-page decision, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ordered trial of Friedrich’s claims of ownership of rights to the character, including his claim for royalties or other payments from the movies made featuring the character.

A three-judge panel said a lower court judge incorrectly dismissed Friedrich’s claims out of hand and needed to review factual issues presented.

Also read: Ghost Rider Creator Loses Fiery Fight with Marvel

“We conclude that the contract language is ambiguous and that genuine disputes of material fact as to the parties' intent and other issues, preclude the granting of judgment as a matter of law,” the judges ruled.

Friedrich was freelancing in 1972 when he came up with the idea of reviving "Ghost Rider." His ideas turned into key elements in the creation of what became a successful new line of Marvel comic books featuring a motorcycle-riding superhero with supernatural powers and a flaming skull for a head. The first issue, which sold for 20 cents, told the story of Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stunt rider who promised his soul to the devil to save his adoptive father from cancer.

In 2007, Friedrich sued Marvel claiming rights to the character’s future use, even though in 1998, while seeking freelance work, he signed a “work for hire” statement agreeing to turn over all rights to work he created to Marvel. 

Friedrich and Marvel have been battling since. Friedrich has argued that his idea was the essential element of “Ghost Rider” to which he has “sole authorship,” while Marvel argued the character was created collaboratively and that Friedrich ceded ownership when he signed the 1998 agreement. Another argument is whether Friedrich gave up any rights by failing to respond quickly enough to Marvel’s repudiation of his rights.

The judges on Tuesday didn’t fully side with Friedrich. They rejected his bid for a ruling dismissing Marvel’s claims and that he was entitled to payment. Instead the judges ruled there were enough factual questions raised in the dispute to require a full trial.

They also expressed some doubts about Marvel’s contention that the 1998 agreement applied to prior works, noting it was the same standard agreement given to other Marvel contributors that made no specific mention of the valuable “Ghost Rider” property rights and that it wasn’t granted in return for any specific compensation. 

Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.