Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 27, 2009

So I’m Watching This Stan Lee Media Press Conference As I Type This…

The current Stan Lee Media people are having a video press conference as I type this featuring super-lawyer Martin Garbus giving a kind of basic facts presentation on their long-running dispute with Stan Lee. The fundamental argument Garbus presents seems to me to remain the same: that Stan Lee signed over all of his rights to all of his creative works to SLM upon that Internet company's creation. A specific legal construction regarding how Lee co-created his Marvel Comics they believe buttressed by facts relating to subsequent Stan Lee lawsuit-generated deals with Marvel gives them an interest in all the Marvel characters Lee co-created because Lee assigned that stuff to them. In other words, they feel Marvel agreed that Lee had profit participation in 2005 when wrapping up their dispute with Lee. They feel this is supported by the nature of the PR regarding that settlement and the construction of the settlement itself. Since they believe Stan had assigned those rights to SLM, he had no business making his deal with Marvel. SLM seeks a deal a lot better than what Stan got for himself.

imageThe problem is, I'm not sure there's anything new here. It makes sense as an argument when they're talking to you and me. It always has. Well, it always made sense to me, anyway. As I've written several times on this site, their argument seems to make sense as an argument. If Martin Garbus were sitting across the table from me at dinner and told me this story, I would say, "Well, you certainly have quite an argument there, Mr. Garbus. It should be interesting to see how things turn out in court. Can you pass the butter?" While this stuff is fun to talk about, I'm not sure anything in the court of public opinion matters at this point. What matters is how it turns out in court. It's like someone making a case that the Arizona Cardinals are going to win the Super Bowl. Maybe so, but of infinitely greater importance is the game on Sunday. Right?

I guess there are some new tidbits. Garbus talks a lot about a November 1998 document between Lee and Marvel that they feel establishes a relationship between Lee and Marvel following the October 1998 assignation to SLM. They seem to be saying that that document is of interest 1) because it establishes some parameters on the Lee/Marvel relationship and 2) it may be evidence that Lee and Marvel were trying to subvert the October 1998 assignation in some way. I don't quite recall something that specific. As we get further on, Garbus drops the acronym "RICO" into the conversation -- abstractly, of course, but I guess that means they're really going to pursue that line of argument.

A much less compelling line of argumentation by Garbus is that SLM didn't assert its apparent ownership or control over these characters until this recent sea of suits because back in 1998 they didn't think they were worth very much, and Marvel was indeed bankrupt during the late 1990s so no one knew these characters' value. I find that not very compelling at all, and would advise anyone speaking on SLM's behalf to avoid that line of thinking entirely.

Apparently there's also a decision forthcoming from a special master on I think whether or not the company as it exists right now can continue to function in a way that would allow them to better pursue the current lawsuit. That might explain the timing of this press conference. Wait, duh, google: they've reinvigorated their fight with a new lawsuit recently filed. Marvel and its major agents are invited along for the ride as well. Mystery solved.

Something else that occurred to me -- as an historical issue, not a legal one -- is that part of the outside-in legal argument for Stan Lee as having an ownership interest depends on his having created the various Marvel characters as an outside agent away from his job at Marvel. I don't even know if that's historically accurate. All the talk about Lee working at home all the time mostly focuses on the pre-Marvel stuff, when he was really cranking stuff out for the monster books and such. I don't specifically know where and when Stan wrote during the Marvel superhero heyday -- I assume he was still writing at home, but I'm not going to court, either. It would be the greatest day of my life to win 50 percent control of Googam, Son Of Goom, but I can't imagine that's what SLM is in it for.

In the Q&A phase from which I was mostly bounced by the technology, someone asked what SLM would do with their interest in the characters, and Garbus spoke of making the characters more 21st Century by better exploiting them on the Internet, as was the general direction of the SLM in the first place. I have to say, I didn't find that to be very compelling, either. For one thing, SLM would be a partner in these characters, not a sole owner. This is also the first I've heard of anyone's dream to get that particular band back together, but only if they can use Spider-Man rather than the characters about which there's no dispute.
posted 7:35 am PST | Permalink

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