Untangling the Web of Spider-Man and Intellectual Property
‘Spider-Man’ recently returned to the big screen, making a cameo in Marvel Studios’ ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and now in a new standalone Sony Pictures’ film entitled ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’. Many fans had been calling for the ‘friendly neighbourhood hero’ to appear alongside Marvel’s other on screen superheroes, but this was more complicated than it may appear.
In the late nineties, Marvel licensed the film rights associated with some of its most well-known fictional superheroes to film companies, including ‘X-Men’ and ‘Fantastic Four’ to 20th Century Fox and ‘Spider-Man’ to Sony Pictures. Such licences would allow Marvel to receive a fee or royalties without having to incur certain costs associated with making and distributing the films and the film studios would have the right to use (and make money from) the intellectual property associated with Marvel’s characters in films.
Agreement between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures
Starting with ‘Iron Man’ in 2008, Marvel decided that it would produce its own films through Marvel Studios and these films proved very popular. The problem for Marvel was that it had licensed the rights to many of its popular characters to other film studios and an agreement with Sony was needed to use ‘Spider-Man’ in its films.
It took until February 2015 for Marvel and Sony to announce such an agreement. This included that ‘Spider-Man’ could appear in Marvel Studio films, Marvel Studio characters (e.g. ‘Iron Man’) could appear in Sony’s ‘Spider-Man’ films and Sony would continue to pay for, own, distribute and have final creative say over ‘Spider-Man’ films. Reportedly, Marvel will not receive a share of the money received from the Sony films but it benefits from being able to use the popular ‘web slinger’ in its films and Marvel has the merchandising rights to the character. As well as keeping the film rights, Sony can tap into the winning formula that Marvel appears to have found for films of comic book heroes (e.g. as Marvel co-produced ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’).
The above is an example of how various different types of intellectual property rights can exist in the same work. For example, there would be artistic copyright in the drawings of the characters, literary copyright in the text of the comic books and the script of the film, and copyright in the film itself (including the soundtrack). These various types of copyright could be licensed for a fee or royalties for a set number of years before the rights would revert back to the owner and a new licence could be negotiated (if desired). Such a licence may also include the right to use certain trade marks (e.g. for ‘Spider-Man’).
Another way of exploiting your intellectual property is through assignment agreements, which are full transfers of your intellectual property to someone else/another company. If you would like help and advice in protecting and exploiting your IP then please do not hesitate to get in touch.