Image courtesy of the Kirby Museum
If you saw the movie “Argo,” you know Jack Kirby as the guy who drew the storyboards of the sci-fi epic set on a Middle Eastern planet that helped the good guys escape the airport. Of course, if you’ve seen a Marvel Comics movie in the past few years, you know some of Kirby’s other work pretty well, too. He is the artist behind such seminal comic book characters as Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, many of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. So, if these are some of the most profitable characters in entertainment today, why aren’t Jack Kirby’s heirs swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck (NOT a Kirby creation, by the way).
The answer, of course, has to do with copyright law. When Kirby co-created these characters with the likes of Joe Simon and Stan Lee, he was toiling for Marvel (formerly Timely) Comics in a work-for-hire situation. This distinction is at the crux of the legal matter here. In 2009, the Kirby heirs filed copyright termination notices on dozens of character, but the court ruled in favor of Marvel, citing Kirby’s work-for-hire status. The 2nd Circuit Court upheld that decision, and now the only ones who can save the day for the Kirby estate are nine heroes who wear robes instead of capes: The Supreme Court.