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Ground-breaking intellectual property fueled the comic book movie boom – but burned its creators

Many assume comic creators are raking in significant portions of these earnings. Unfortunately, for the leading minds behind some of the most beloved characters, the truth is much grimmer.

The double-edged sword of intellectual property laws in comic book ownership
The double-edged sword of intellectual property laws in comic book ownership

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ll know that heroes, villains and anyone in a cape is big business for filmmakers, toy manufacturers and generally any object that fits a logo. Comic books have been around since the 1930s, with many well-known characters popping up in the decades that followed. For much of its history, fans of the genre were limited to kids or small clusters of adults.

Flashy protectors with clever quips started becoming mainstream in the 90s, attracting throngs of moviegoers and packs of followers. The industry really became supercharged in the past decade with masked men and sword-wielding ladies raking in billions from films, branded clothing and everything in between. The creators of these gems, many of whom passed away in recent years, got the chance to see their iconic characters grace the screen and delight millions across the globe.

These concepts, some drawn nearly a century ago, were reimagined to capture the hearts of modern moviegoers who gleefully parted with their cash for a chance to catch their heroes’ latest adventure on-screen. Many assume that creative comic geniuses would be raking in significant portions of these film earnings. Unfortunately, for the leading minds behind some of the most beloved characters, the truth is much grimmer. 

While the intellectual property first captured on the pages of comic books gave rise to some of the most profitable films of all time, the law proved to be a double-edged sword for their creators who lost out to the bulk of the massive fortune earned by their beloved characters.

One of the earliest such characters was developed by two young friends in the years following the great depression. Eager to sell their stories, the artists sold their rights – including the names and conception – to a publisher for a paltry sum. The small fee even covered the rights to DVDs, Blu-ray discs and other technology that had yet to be invented. The two battled bitterly with the new owners, and each other, in numerous lawsuits until their deaths.

In its early years, the comic book industry hired writers and illustrators as employees. Under the US Copyright Act of 1909, these artists were considered work-for-hire and instructed to create content by their employer, who subsequently owned the rights. One such creator laboured under this arrangement for the bulk of his career, tirelessly working but never owning his characters. Though he too passed away after unsuccessful lawsuits, his estate later settled with the owning corporation for an undisclosed sum in 2014.

One of the most notable visionaries behind numerous comic characters fared slightly better than his colleagues. Movies based on his characters grossed over $24 billion at the box office, though the creator himself sold the rights away before cameras started rolling. He managed to make a comfortable living through involvement in productions and public appearances.

Why did these ground-breaking creators fail to cash in on their lucrative characters? It’s important to note that intellectual property laws, even early ones, were not aimed at disregarding innovators. The fact of the matter is, these stories were written in a time where such art was largely unprofitable, and both the owning business and original artists could never have imagined the wealth that would later be generated by these same concepts. Stringent laws that prevented the men from recapturing their characters were designed as protection against outside infringing parties. Today’s creative minds have more access to industry knowledge and the ability to lay claim to their concepts before business starts to boom. Plus, intellectual property lawyers are more readily available to inventors and are ready to help prepare creations for the next billion-dollar industry.