The current storm surrounding Gary Friedrich and his legal difficulties with Marvel has served to re-open* the can of worms that is creator rights. For those of you who have been hiding under a rock for the last couple of months, or who take the "I just read 'em, I don't care about the industry politics" approach, Friedrich's issue boils down to this:
Back in the seventies Friedrich was involved in the creation of the character Ghost Rider. I say "involved" because there is some on-the-record disagreement between Friedrich, Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog about exactly what their relative contributions were. This is nothing new in comics of course – many great creators over the years have disagreed about the level of each other's contributions to the creation of various characters. Whenever you get creative people collaborating together on the same thing there are always differing perceptions about how important their own personal involvement actually was. In the grand scheme of things such issues are generally sorted out amicably with some good humoured banter and everyone moves on.
At other times, of course, there is money involved. Money always complicates things.
So it was with Friedrich. For a long time he just let the matter lie. But he had said that "if Marvel gets in a position where they are gonna make a movie or make a lot of money off of it, I'm gonna sue them, and I probably will. … It was my idea." And so, in 2007 when the Nicholas Cage movie was made, and a lot of people started making money out of something that he regarded as his idea, that's precisely what he did.
Now. If I'd been Marvel, I'd probably settled out of court with some kind of "goodwill" payment. I suspect they could've come up with a "without prejudice" formula that recognised that creators didn't have any legal call on the proceeds from the franchising of a character they had created on a work for hire basis, but recognised their contribution. It would have been a lot cheaper all round, I suspect. As it is, that didn't happen, and things didn't go Friedrich's way. On December 28, 2011, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ruled that Marvel Entertainment owned the character, saying Friedrich gave up any ownership claim when he signed checks containing language relinquishing all rights. She said Friedrich had also signed a 1978 agreement with Marvel relinquishing rights.
And that was that. Game over. Another blow struck against creator rights in favour of the big corporations. Or a vindication of a company's determination to insist that contracts are honoured, depending on your point of view.
Except of course, it wasn't.
If it had been I'm sure that there would still be people arguing the toss about the difference between moral and legal rights – in much the same way as people spent a large portion of last week arguing about the Watchmen prequels. But – in a move so lacking in style and class it makes my head spin – Marvel chose to twist the knife.
They could, no should have pocketed their victory, wished Friedrich well and moved on with that highly successful entertainment business they have. Friedrich was no threat to them, or their business, and his loss in the courts must have cost him more than just lawyers' fees. Instead they sued him – and not just for money, although that would have been bad enough.
But in fact Marvel – now owned by Disney**, don't forget, so the sums involved are truly pocket money to them – has done more than demand $17,000 for selling prints of Ghost Rider at conventions. Now, in a move so dripping with spite and bile it's leaving a nasty little slime trail on my floor, they have also sought to prohibit Friedrich from identifying himself as a co-creator of the character.
That's right folks. Not only do they want $17,000 in payment for doing what pretty much every comics creator in the same circumstances does, they also want to change history. While, as noted above, the creators involved in the genesis of the character disagree about who did what there is no disagreement that Friedrich was involved. Friedrich claiming to have co-created Ghostrider doesn't hurt Marvel/Disney in any way at all, but it does allow him to make a little bit of extra money off the convention circuit – a source of income I'm guessing would come in handy for an unemployed old guy with $17,000 of legal damages to pay to his former employers.
Personally I don't fancy Marvel's chances of getting any money off Friedrich. He hasn't got any.
Now. I take a pretty hard line view on creator rights. So far as I'm concerned, if you create something, it's yours unless you create it as part of your job, or you sell the rights to it to somebody else. In that case it belongs to the people you created it for, or the people you sold it to.*** Sometimes people sell more than they intended, or don't see any option but to sell, or don't quite understand the full implications of what they're doing, and that's unfortunate, but in the end shit happens and you move on.
Sometimes there is a genuine disagreement about who owns what. In those circumstances the parties involved go to the courts who make a ruling. I'm not a lawyer. I have no particular knowledge of UK copyright law, and know even less about the law in the US. If District Judge Katherine Forrest says that Marvel, not Friedrich owns Ghostrider, I'm simply not qualified to disagree. I was rooting for Friedrich, but as I say, shit happens, and you move on.
However, creator rights are not the only thing I take a hard line view on. I also hate, loathe and detest bullies. As a teacher, one time bullying victim and as a human being who likes to be able to look myself in the mirror in a morning, I despise bullies. And I simply cannot see Marvel's countersuit in any other light.
I don't blame them for defending Friedrich's original suit. they didn't have a lot of choice really, if they ceed ownership of one character to a co-creator they open a can of worms that screws pretty much their entire business model and potentially create a precedent that could lay half their existing contracts open to challenge – there are a lot of people who did work for Marvel in the Seventies who got what would now be considered to be a pretty raw deal.****
But now? Perusing a former employee for money he doesn't have that they don't need? Attempting to prevent him for claiming credit that is rightfully his?
That is petty, vindictive and downright disgraceful behaviour which should be challenged. I'd advocate a boycott of Marvel, except of course that does nothing but hurt current creators, and in any case I don't actually buy any Marvel comics anyway, so a boycott by me would have a pretty minimal impact. I'd advocate contacting Marvel to express displeasure at their actions and demanding they reconsider – but their actions have already revealed that they have no shame, so what would be the point?
So instead I'm going to advocate that comics readers who care about creator rights to shout as loudly as they can. Marvel/Disney might well have no shame, but they do have a big PR department who will eventually take action to make a bad news story go away. I urge you all to blog, tweet, facebook, google+, and comment in support of Gary Friedrich. Tell people who wouldn't otherwise know exactly what Marvel/Disney have done to a former employee, just because he had the temerity to try and assert rights he believed he had.
They should have left it there.
Since they didn't, let's see if we can't make it bite them on the arse.
*Or keep open – it's not as though this particular can has been closed very much over the last few years.
**Who, at least through association, have hereby proved themselves to be a truly Mickey Mouse employer.
***This is why the kitchen we had built onto the back of FoolCentral belongs to us, and not the architect or the builders we paid to design and build it.
****I'm going to leave to one side the fact that the implication of what I've just said is that companies like Marvel have built their business on the exploitation of the creative talent they employed. That's too big a subject for now – it needs much greater consideration at some other point.