Court battle over Marvel superheroes continues in Colorado

Photo: Silver Surfer Comics Marvel
A selection of Silver Surfer comic books. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the character, who first appeared in 1966.

Spider-Man, X-Men and The Hulk loomed large in a federal appeals court Tuesday as a Colorado company fought its latest battle with Disney for the rights to Marvel's iconic comic book characters.

A panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case involving Colorado-based Stan Lee Media and The Walt Disney Co. after a federal judge last year dismissed a lawsuit in which Stan Lee Media claimed the copyright to the characters.

The lawsuit sought profits from the $5.5 million the company said Disney made from movies and merchandise featuring the superheroes. Disney bought Marvel in 2009.

Stan Lee Media, which is no longer affiliated with comic book writer Stan Lee, then appealed the judge's dismissal of the case, the latest turn in a court battle between the companies that has spanned more than a decade.

Stan Lee Media has sued Marvel and others over the characters' copyrights in at least six cases, all of which have been dismissed, according to court documents. In asking the judge to dismiss the latest lawsuit, Disney said there was no conceivable way Stan Lee Media could state a viable copyright claim.

"This is their seventh bite of a rotten apple," Disney attorney Jim Quinn said after Tuesday's court hearing.

At the center of the dispute is a 1998 agreement in which Lee signed over the rights to his characters to its corporate predecessor. But Lee later sent Stan Lee Media a letter terminating the agreement because the company had breached the deal. He gave the same copyrights to Marvel, spawning the courtroom battles, court documents say.

Robert Chapman, an attorney representing Stan Lee Media, argued Tuesday the company still has copyright to at least some of the characters under the 1998 agreement.

But attorneys for Disney argued that courts in other states have already ruled against Stan Lee Media on the same matter. Chapman said the earlier court decisions don't apply to the latest lawsuit.

The three-judge panel did not issue a ruling Tuesday.