Saturday, January 22, 2022

An Invincible Lawsuit


            News recently broke that William Crabtree, the colorist on the first 50 issues of Invincible, sued Robert Kirkman and his companies. In the complaint, Crabtree is seeking rescission of an agreement that purportedly transferred his copyright interests to Kirkman, an accounting of money due to him, and a declaration of joint ownership in the Invincible series.

            For those familiar with the dispute between Kirkman and Tony Moore over The Walking Dead, the facts alleged in the complaint are very similar.[1] Crabtree worked as the colorist on Invincible for the first 50 issues, and there was no written agreement. The complaint states that Crabtree and Kirkman agreed that he would receive 20% “of single issue sales…with a minimum of $40 per page” and 10% of any adaptations.

 Kirkman approached Crabtree in 2005 at SDCC, and asked him to sign a document, titled a Certificate of Authorship, that would give Kirkman the rights to Invincible. The reason given to Crabtree for signing the document was to make the rights ownership simpler so that Invincible could be sold to Hollywood for adaptation. The complaint states that the 2005 document retroactively declared Crabtree’s contributions as a work-made-for-hire. The complaint also alleges that Crabtree was not given the opportunity to have an attorney review the document. Crabtree was told that it was urgent the document was signed because of meetings that would take place. Kirkman verbally told him that the basics of their deal would remain the same. Crabtree signed the document and never received a copy.

After signing the deal, Crabtree continued to receive the same amounts, if not greater, from Kirkman. He also received additional payments when the comic book was optioned by MTV and Paramount. However, when Crabtree approached Kirkman in 2020 about additional payments from the recent Amazon adaptation, he was told that he had no ownership in the work, was not entitled to additional payments, and any previous payments had been discretionary bonuses. Crabtree subsequently filed this lawsuit.

We will see what happens with this lawsuit. Most likely it will settle, but if it doesn’t, it could provide an interesting look at how copyright law views the contributions of colorists in relation to comic books. In Gaiman v. McFarlane, the court recognized that the contributions of the writer, illustrator, inker, and colorist are essential to creating the final, copyrightable comic book, even though some of their contributions, on their own, may not be separately copyrightable.[2] The complaint makes the argument that Crabtree’s colors were instrumental in creating the look and feel of Invincible, and his contributions entitle him to be a joint-owner and joint-author of the work. Since there was no written agreement, his work cannot be a work-made-for-hire, and his contributions could likely make him a co-owner of the final work. If he is a co-owner of the work, then he could assign his rights, but you cannot retroactively deem something a work-made-for-hire if it is not. So, the facts surrounding the meeting between Kirkman and Crabtree in 2005 will be key to determining whether there was a valid transfer of rights.

Overall, this is a strong reminder to get it in writing, have it reviewed by an attorney, and don’t let anyone pressure you to sign a deal until you’re comfortable with it.


A copy of the complaint can be found here.

[1] It should be noted that the same attorney who represented Moore is also representing Crabtree.

[2] Gaiman v. McFarlane, 360 F.3d 644, 659.