The Amazing Stan Lee vs. Copyright Law

If you keep up with pop culture in any way, you’re most likely familiar with Marvel and its creator Stan Lee.

However, you may not know that out of the $25 billion dollars 🤑 Marvel made from Spiderman and the Avengers, Stan Lee made less than 1% 😵. 

In case you’re wondering, his share amounted to only a few thousand dollars 💲.

With this fact in mind, it’s not shocking that Marvel’s treatment of Stan Lee led to numerous lawsuits, a bankruptcy, and put him at odds with the most popular and successful superhero in the Marvel franchise, Spiderman 🕷️.

 Stan Lee’s story is about more than the man who created the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In fact, it’s a story about how copyright law can actually hurt us creators.

The story 📖 of Stan Lee

Stan Lee was born in 1922 in New York City 🏙️ and adored writing ✍️ as a child. More specifically, Lee loved writing stories about superheroes overcoming great odds.

As a teenager, Lee interned at Timely Comics, a comic book publishing company. As an intern, Lee fetched coffee ☕, filled up ink ✒️ wells, and occasionally stepped in for comic writers by producing stories for them to add to their books.

After only two years, Lee’s talent was noticed, and he was promoted ⬆️ to editor-in-chief. Within the next decade, Timely became Atlas which ultimately turned into – you guessed it! – Marvel.

In the 1950s, once DC Comics revitalized the superhero genre, Marvel directed Lee to create their own superhero universe.

In response, Lee and his long-time collaborator Jack Kirby produced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, and most importantly, Spiderman.

Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, these superheroes became ingrained in American culture as movies 🎞️, TV 📺 shows, and novels 📚 were created out of the Marvel superheroes. 

When Lee stepped down from his position in 1972, he kept a salary 💰 of about one million dollars per year as editor-in-chief emeritus. However, he didn’t get to share in the massive profits Marvel was bringing in until the 1990s.

During this time, Marvel was struggling as superheroes’ popularity declined 📉. As a result, they reached out to Lee for help.

Marvel offered Lee 10% of all profits from TV and movies involving their characters moving forward, and Lee accepted, assuming nothing would come of the deal. In fact, he even created his own production company, Stan Lee Media, which went bankrupt in a matter of years.

Then, in 2000 and 2002, “X-Men” and “Spiderman” brought in over $300 million and almost one billion dollars 💸, respectively.

This should have been great news for Lee; however, he never received the $130 million check that Marvel promised him. 

In response, Lee hired a lawyer and sued Marvel. When the case settled in 2005, Lee won an undisclosed sum of money that was allegedly nowhere near his fair share of the billions earned from the Marvel franchise.

If Lee were still alive and had received the 10% of profits he was promised, his estate would be worth about $2.5 billion.

How did Lee lose?

At a glance, it may seem like Lee should have won 🏅 his case and been awarded the money he was owed. 

However, Marvel’s #defense claimed that Lee was not ❌ entitled to a larger share of profits. 

Their reasoning?

The work for hire exception to copyright law

As you know, copyright law protects us creators from others using our art to earn money without paying for it.

The same laws apply to comic books, specifically to protect the story, characters, and #graphics 🎨.

Therefore, if Lee and Kirby had been protected under copyright law, they would have owned Marvel’s characters and had the exclusive license to reproduce and perform those characters.

However, in their case, copyright law did not exist without exception. 

At the time that Lee and Kirby created Spiderman and other Marvel characters, they were employed by Marvel. Marvel, as their employer, gave them direction to create these characters on its behalf in exchange for a paycheck 💵. 

As a result, Marvel retained the copyrights for the characters and owed Lee no additional money.

Why the law exists

If Lee’s situation still sounds unfair to you, consider this:

The court honors the work for hire exception to copyright law because it judges that people and companies 🏢 need the ability to hire employees to create art without the fear that those artists 👩‍🎨 will return later asking for more money.

Just like copyright law automatically applies to creators, the work for hire exemption to copyright law automatically applies to businesses. 

Sure, Lee and Kirby created the MCU and probably should have been given a bigger cut. 

However, you could objectively argue that, based on the work for hire law, Lee received more money than he was legally entitled to! 

What we can learn from Lee

Creators, Lee’s lesson is one we can all learn 🏫 from:

Stay aware 👀 and educated when you’re creating art for others.

When you work for a larger enterprise, keep in mind that your art could potentially make your employer a lot of money! 

Remember your worth; if your creations are earning the company income that could foreseeably increase 📈 in the future, pull your employer aside, perhaps consult with a lawyer, and #negotiate a fair share of future profits from your art.

….and while we’re on that note, don’t live with the regret of not understanding how copyright law affects your online 🌐 art.