Over the past week, the most recent turn in the lawsuits between original "Ghost Rider" writer Gary Friedrich and Marvel Comics have caused a stir in the comics community. As a result, creators and fans have been actively debating and discussing the legal issues of creators rights as they apply both to copyright ownership and continuing freelance entrepreneurship, with the conversation often taking the form of support for Friedrich and/or condemnation of Marvel.
While it was known a while ago that the writer had lost his most recent attempt to win full copyright control of the motorcycle superhero who's second Hollywood feature opens on screens this week, court documents released last Thursday revealed that the ongoing negotiations over the case had led to a stipulation where by Friedrich owes Marvel $17,000 in damages from selling unlicensed Ghost Rider materials including t-shirts and prints at conventions and can no longer promote himself in the manner he has as Ghost Rider's creator. The court order has drawn many questions, including why the multi-million dollar entertainment company would work to get such an amount from a creator who is by most accounts nearly destitute and whether the ruling means current and past comic freelancers would now be pursued by Marvel and Disney if they do not stop selling character-related art at conventions.
Much of the recent coverage has focused on Friedrich and efforts to support him financially. CBR News reached out to Marvel to comment on the news and its ramifications, and Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley and Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada agreed to discuss the subject. The pair explain Marvel's point of view of why the $17,000 ruling is not a settlement or even something totally within Marvel's control, who created Ghost Rider and how the credit will be attributed in the future, what Quesada's role with the Hero Initiative means for this case and what this ruling means for all creators plying their wares at cons coast-to-coast.
CBR News: Gentlemen, thanks for taking the time to discuss what is obviously a tough issue. It's much appreciated.
Joe Quesada: Thanks for giving us the opportunity to speak a bit about this very tough situation for everyone involved. What Dan and I simply want to do is clear up some of this stuff as best we can. There's a lot of misinformation out there. It's very easy to get wrapped up in the David and Goliath aspects of it all, but like so many of these things, it's much more complicated than that.
Dan Buckley: One of the biggest problems with discussing and trying to clear the air on matters like this, as well as debunking rumors, is that this is an ongoing litigation, and because of that, there is only so much that we can say publicly. I'm sure some will view our inability to be more candid as something more than us being respectful of this ongoing case, but unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about that at this time.
To start with the most recent events in what has been a very long story, last week we all learned that Marvel had won a settlement against Gary Friedrich and his LLC stating that Gary should pay $17,000 in damages for selling unlicensed Ghost Rider materials at conventions and that he can no longer promote himself in association with the character for financial gain. To be frank, the reaction to this news in the industry and from fans has been very negative towards Marvel. Maybe the biggest question people have is why Marvel feels the need to levy a fine against a former creator that is a significant amount of money to him but not much at all to Marvel. Was there no way to ask for an injunction against the further sale of this material that didn't call for such a large fine?
Quesada: Some historical context would be helpful towards understanding the situation. This story begins in 2007, when Gary decided to sue Marvel claiming that, as a writer, he was the sole creator of Ghost Rider and that Marvel was infringing on his rights. A federal judge disagreed. Recently, Gary's lawyers have said publicly that they intend to appeal their loss, and that ball is now in their court.
Now, here's where the story seems to take on a life of its own. First and foremost, Marvel has not settled with Gary. What has been misinterpreted as a settlement is a court document that Gary's very own attorneys agreed to, along with Marvel's attorneys. That document basically ends his lawsuit against Marvel at the trial court level with Marvel having won and Gary's case dismissed. By agreeing on a number for the profits Gary made from selling unlicensed Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider merchandise after the court has decided that Marvel is the owner of that copyright, it allows Gary's attorneys to file his appeal now rather than have Gary litigate further. It is in no way a "fine" or "punishment" for Gary. It is something that the court asked both parties to do and agree upon. This is one more step in an expensive and time-consuming legal process initiated way back in 2007.
Buckley: We should also clarify another rumor that Marvel is somehow preventing Gary from promoting his creative association with Ghost Rider. This is simply not true. The court document Joe mentioned specifically gives Gary the right to sign authorized Ghost Rider books and merchandise and sell his autograph.
We all recognize that he was a part of Ghost Rider's creation, but who does Marvel consider to be the creators of the character, and what impact at all does that have on how this case has developed?
Quesada: From the Marvel side of things, we absolutely agree that Gary made a significant contribution to the creation of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. That has never been under contention. But Gary didn't do it alone. Mike Ploog, the original artist, was a co-creator. Other people contributed as well, including Roy Thomas and Stan Lee. There were many individuals present at the time of Johnny Blaze's creation who disagree with the claim that Gary was the sole creator. And keep in mind, there was a previous Marvel Western character called Ghost Rider.
So, with that in mind, will the creators of Johnny Blaze be credited in the upcoming film? If not, why not, considering that Marvel notes the names of creators in numerous other movies, whether they be released by Marvel Studios or not? Is there any chance that a credit could be added to future home video releases?
Quesada: With the lawsuit continuing, it's unfortunately too late to put credits into the second film. It's also too early to know what credits may be put into the home video version. I wish I had a happier answer for this, but unfortunately I don't. I think folks can understand why.
Obviously, the charity the Hero Initiative exists largely for the very purpose of helping the bottom line of those who have worked in the industry. As the news of Gary's situation regarding his ability to pay the damages from the suit or even basic living expenses spread, many members of the industry wondered whether the Hero Initiative would be willing or able to pitch in and whether having Joe as a board member created any kind of conflict of interest on that front. Joe, can you speak to how your role as CCO and your role as Hero board member are connected as well as what the Initiative's view of cases like Gary's are?
Quesada: As many people in the industry know, I've been deeply involved with the Hero Initiative since its inception. It's a cause that is very near and dear to my heart and the only organization of its kind that I'm involved with. Regardless of my role as CCO, I have never nor would I ever stand in the way of someone receiving much-needed help, and I don't get involved with Hero's decisions on how to help. As a matter of fact, when all of this Ghost Rider stuff broke, I immediately checked with Hero's President, Jim McLauchlin, to see if Gary was in need of assistance, and Jim informed me that up until that point Gary had not applied for any. My understanding is that Hero has since been in touch.
Buckley: Let me add that Marvel has also supported many projects by the Hero Initiative. If fans are looking for a wonderful outlet by which to give back to the creators of a medium they love, please give to the Hero Initiative.
One broader issue that's been widely discussed is that of the convention economy and freelance artist's place in it. Everyone knows comic creators sell original art and other materials at artist's allies across the country. Marvel has even worked with some current freelancers to create licensed prints specifically for this purpose. But the view overall has been that artists are able to sell their wares without legal threat from the publisher. With this suit, has there been a whole cloth change in stance from Marvel regarding convention artist's alley business? And if so, what is Marvel's view of this practice? Does a creator have the right to sketch Spider-Man for fans for money?
Quesada: Let me put this as simply as I can: Marvel is not looking to make any new policy announcements through this lawsuit -- a lawsuit that began five years ago.
As a case in point, the Internet and the creative community became incredibly concerned when Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, thinking that Marvel now wouldn't return original art to its artists, even despite my publicly stating the contrary. As you can see, that was unfounded.
Buckley: We in no way want to interfere with creators at conventions who are providing a positive Marvel experience for our fans. We want fans to speak and interact with the creators who wrote, penciled, inked, lettered, colored or edited their favorite stories. Part of that positive interaction is that a fan can walk away with a signed memento or personalized sketch from an artist.
In the course of conducting this interview, CBR News asked a follow-up question as to Marvel's policies towards its creators: "Finally, issues of legal ownership aside, one of the most common complaints, if not the most common complaint about the comics industry, is that the deck has been stacked against working creators as far back as the industry's inception. Does Marvel feel a responsibility now to help support the writers and artists who helped build the Marvel Universe, and in particular the artists who had a direct hand in creating the kind of franchise characters that can support multi-million dollar movie and licensing endeavors?"
Marvel declined comment with a spokesperson citing the ongoing litigation.