I’ve recently written a few posts on creators attempting to reclaim ownership of the characters they created. I’ve discussed Siegel and Shuster and their attempt to reclaim Superman, Joe Simon and his attempt to reclaim Captain America, and Jack Kirby’s heirs’ attempts to reclaim most of Kirby’s creations for Marvel. Today, I’ll discuss Gary Friedrich’s attempt to reclaim ownership of the Ghost Rider character he developed for Marvel.
Ghost Rider debuted in April 1972 in Marvel Spotlight No. 5. In the comic book, Gary Friedrich was credited as having conceived and written the story. The character was popular, and Marvel began publishing a Ghost Rider comic book series.
The story of how the character was created, however, is not easy to discern. In its opinion, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledges the facts around the character’s creation are heavily disputed. Due to the procedural nature of the case – the lower court found for Marvel on summary judgment – the Second Circuit construed the facts “in the light most favorable to Friedrich, with all reasonable inferences drawn in his favor.”
Friedrich was working as a freelance comic book writer when he decided to pitch Marvel a character he had been developing over the years, the basics of which form the core of the Ghost Rider character. Marvel agreed to publish the character in exchange for Friedrich assigning his rights in the character to the company. At the time this transaction took place, there was not a written agreement. Friedrich did not sign a work-for-hire agreement until 1978.
The 1909 Copyright Act applied to the creation of Spotlight No. 5, and the original copyright term for the work ended in 2000. In 2005 or 2006, Friedrich learned he may have renewal rights in the Ghost Rider character and filed “a Renewal Copyright Registration in Spotlight 5 and Ghost Rider in February 2007.” His company sued Marvel shortly afterwards.
In 2010, Marvel filed their answer in the lawsuit claiming Ghost Rider was made as a work-for-hire, and they filed a counterclaim against Friedrich for copyright infringement. On summary judgment, the lower court found Friedrich’s signing of the 1978 agreement had conveyed all of his remaining rights to Marvel. The lower court awarded damages to Marvel for Friedrich's copyright infringement, and it ordered him to stop using the Ghost Rider copyright.
On appeal, the second circuit overturned the lower court’s decision. It found the 1978 agreement did not convey any renewal rights Friedrich may have had in the Ghost Rider character, and it could not retroactively declare Ghost Rider a work-made-for-hire. Additionally, the facts surrounding the creation of Ghost Rider were in dispute, which prevented the appellate court from deciding the issue.
Friedrich asked the court to reconsider his claim for summary judgment that he is the creator of Ghost Rider. Applying the facts most favorably to Marvel, the court found the facts to be heavily disputed, and the facts presented by Marvel support an account of Ghost Rider contradictory to Friedrich’s. Marvel’s version of events would show Friedrich had an uncopyrightable idea he presented to Marvel that was subsequently and collaboratively created by the contributions of Friedrich, Stan Lee, Roy Thomas (then-publisher of Marvel), and Mike Ploog (original artist) to Ghost Rider’s origins and appearance.
The court sent the case back to the lower court for trial. Three months later, Marvel and Friedrich settled the case.
This is a messy case, but there are two important lessons to be learned from it. First, if you don’t have a signed agreement addressing copyright ownership, you are asking for trouble. If Marvel had the appropriate contracts in place when the work was created, the whole situation would have been avoided. Second, it’s important to know your rights. Friedrich could have lost this case because he was unaware of copyright renewal rights and how they might apply to him. Fortunately for him, the appellate court revived his chances of proving himself at trial, which ultimately led to a settlement.
 Gary Friedrich Enters., LLC v. Marvel Characters, Inc., 716 F.3d 302, 309 (2nd Cir. 2013).
 Id. at 308.
 Id. at 310.
 Id. at 311.
 Id. at 311-12.
 Id. at 314-16.
 Id. at 316.
 Id. at 320.
 Id. at 321.
 Eriq Gardner, Marvel Settles Lawsuit with ‘Ghost Rider’ Creator, Sept. 9, 2013, HollywoodReporter.com, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/marvel-settles-lawsuit-ghost-rider-624609 (last visited May 2, 2017).