In my book Comics Startup 101: Key Legal and Business Issues for Comic Book Creators, I briefly discuss the Ken Penders litigation against Archie Comics. In summary, Penders wrote Sonic the Hedgehog comics for Archie in the 90s, and he never signed a work-made-for-hire agreement. He sued Archie over ownership of the characters, and the case eventually settled. Similarly, artist Scott Fulop filed a lawsuit against Archie Comics in 2016. He claimed ownership to the Sonic the Hedgehog stories he worked on and that Archie’s use of them was infringement. The district court finally issued its decision in the case, Narrative Ark Entertainment LLC v. Archie Comics Publications, Inc., No. 16CV6109 (VB) (S.D.N.Y.), at the end of August.
Fulop worked as a freelance writer and artist for Archie Comics between 1996 and 1998, creating stories and characters for the Sonic the Hedgehog line of books. During his time working on Sonic, he did not sign a work-made-for-hire agreement, and even though Archie Comics claimed he did, no evidence of one was introduced at trial. After learning from Penders that his creations were still being reprinted, Fulop registered copyrights in his works in 2009 and 2010. Archie claimed authorship and ownership of the works, filed for copyright registrations, and transferred its rights in the same over to Sega between 2011 and 2013. Fulop did not file his lawsuit until 2016, claiming he was evaluating his options and waiting to see the outcome of the Penders litigation.
In its decision, the court ruled against Fulop. The court found that at its heart, the case was about copyright ownership. Fulop claimed he owned rights to the stories he worked on, and Archie claimed he didn’t. In a lawsuit concerning ownership of a copyright, a claim must be brought within three years of discovering evidence of disputed ownership. Since Fulop was aware of the Penders litigation, having submitted an affidavit during it, and was aware of the disputed ownership claims over his works, the court dismissed Fulop’s claims as they were brought later than three years after discovering the dispute. Since Fulop’s ownership claim failed, his lawsuit for infringement could not move forward. As a result, the court dismissed Fulop’s claims against Archie.
Creators should pay attention to this case for two reasons. First, it’s important to know your rights and the details of the contracts you sign. And second, if you think you have a claim or dispute against someone, don’t wait too long in evaluating or asserting it.