Into the Spider-Verse: Untangling the Web of a Decades-long Custody Battle Over the Iconic Superhero

Megan Norris – Originally debuting in the pages of Marvel Comics in 1962, Spider-Man has become one of the most popular superheroes in the world. The ingenious story of a relatable and awkward teenager who obtained spider-like powers from a radioactive spider bite captured the hearts of fans across the globe and the attention of media companies. In the late 1990’s, Sony Pictures acquired the intellectual property rights to the character for $7 million and has held on tightly to them ever since.

Marvel Studios – now owned by Disney – and Sony remain trapped in a sticky web over intellectual property ownership of the character’s story, which has been exacerbated by the immense popularity of Tom Holland’s witty portrayal of Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s alter ego, in Marvel’s recent films. For Marvel to include Spider-Man in its Marvel Cinematic Universe (“MCU”), the studio reached a legal agreement with Sony in 2015 to share the intellectual property. The studios have since disputed the terms of the deal, leaving many fans questioning whether Holland would return to the role in the MCU. Despite the sporadic disagreements, a compromise for joint ownership remains intact between the studios. This has allowed Marvel to incorporate Holland’s iteration of the character into its MCU as Iron Man’s protégé and jointly produce with Sony a new Spider-Man trilogy.

The superhero first appeared in Amazing Fantasy Vol. 1, a comic written by the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. In August 2021, Ditko’s estate filed a notice of termination to revert the ownership of Spider-Man back to Ditko’s family, invoking a provision that allows the legal ownership of written works to revert from the publisher to the original author or his heirs after a set amount of time. If the termination notices are successful, both Marvel and Sony could lose legal ownership over their beloved superhero. Marvel is reportedly responding with a lawsuit against the Ditko estate, alleging that “these blockbuster characters are ineligible for copyright termination as works made for hire.” If successful, Ditko’s termination notices will be void. If unsuccessful, both Marvel and Sony could lose their “Spidey” rights as soon as June 2023.

Although Marvel and Sony find themselves aligned against Ditko’s estate, they continue to navigate their own conflicts. One example of the studios’ ongoing disputes is Disney’s inability to stream the jointly produced trilogy on Disney+ alongside all its other Marvel productions. For the most part, they have found solutions to their disagreements, which has greatly benefited Marvel’s expansion of Spidey’s story as it sets the stage for the next “phase” of MCU movies. In the most recent film, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Marvel and Sony teamed up to produce an innovative spin on Spider-Man that thrilled fans and grossed over $1.37 billion in global box offices. The surprise “multi-verse” appearance of *spoiler* former Sony Spider-Man actors, Toby McGuire and Andrew Garfield, accompanied by the villains each version of Spider-Man faced, mirrors the real-world collaboration between Marvel and Sony. In fact, Marvel’s President, Kevin Feige, has already confirmed Marvel and Sony will continue teaming up to develop more content for the Spider-Man franchise in response to the film’s monstrous box office success.

While Peter Parker is expected to face a plethora of challenges in the MCU, it will be important to monitor the real-world legal challenges threatening the character’s future – from the continued maintenance of the deal between Marvel and Sony to the Ditko lawsuit for full transfer of ownership. The legal fate of the web-headed superhero in this universe will almost certainly impact his fictional fate in the MCU multi-verse. All eyes are now on Marvel, Sony, and the Ditko estate as they determine the future of the world’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

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