Last Tuesday the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge’s copyright renewal dispute decision favoring Marvel against Ghost Rider writer Gary Friedrich, the Hollywood Reporter reported (see original article for link to full ruling).
Friedrich scripted the first issue of Marvel’s Western Ghost Rider character in 1967 before freelancing the first superhero Ghost Rider story that appeared in Marvel Spotlight #5 in 1972. In 1976 Congress introduced copyright law revisions that went into effect on January 1, 1978, at which point Friedrich signed a new agreement with Marvel regarding the rights to the character, worded to address the copyright law changes.
The original strip was canceled in 1983. The character was revived in a new incarnation in 1990. Subsquently Friedrich began disputing Roy Thomas’ account of the origin of the character. Ghost Rider’s emultation of stunt biker Evel Knievel resembled a villain called the Stunt-Master Thomas had introduced in Daredevil #64 in 1970. Thomas’ recollection was also that the character’s flaming skull was conceived by Mike Ploog rather than Friedrich. Friedrich insists he designed the flaming skull, while Ploog doesn’t remember.
When Friedrich heard in 2004 that the first Ghost Rider movie was in production, he challenged Marvel’s ownership of the character. The film was released in 2007 to a moderate box office reception. In 2011 federal judge Katherine Forrest ruled that Friedrich’s 1978 agreement granted “to Marvel forever all rights of any kind and nature in and to the Work”. Last Tuesday’s decision by Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge Denny Chin overturns this on the grounds that the wording of the 1978 agreement is “ambiguous” and needs further investigation at trial. The ambiguity stems from the wording’s focus on the work-for-hire terms of the agreement, which emphasizes Friedrich’s freelancer status while working for Marvel, but does not explictly address the issue of copyright renewal, which was another aspect of copyright law affected by the 1976 changes.
Despite the overturning of the decision, Chin’s decision includes language that suggests further review will merely clarify Marvel’s ownership of the character rather than siding with Friedrich. Chin commented, “When construed in Marvel’s favor, the record reveals that Friedrich had nothing more than an uncopyrightable idea for a motorcycle-riding character when he presented it to Marvel because he had not yet fixed the idea into a tangible medium.” Chin found it likely that a jury could reasonably conclude Friedrich and other Ghost Rider creators were working for Marvel under a work-for-hire agreement. However, this will ultimately be decided in trial.