If you’ve visited our other blog posts, you probably know that intellectual property (IP) can be protected in many ways: via patent law, trademark law, copyright law, or some combination of these intellectual property regimes. As a creator or owner of IP, there are so many opportunities to monetize or license those creations. Copyright law, for example, protects original published and unpublished “works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” A tangible medium can be just about anything: paintings, novels, picture books, album covers, plotlines, movies, computer software codes, major league baseball channel coverage, and, yes... even superhero comics. Generally, copyrights last for the life of the author plus 70 years.
While copyright law cannot protect a general idea or discovery of something (e.g., a person who now has superpowers after being bitten by an animal), copyright law does protect a particular or specific expression of that idea (e.g., Peter Parker, a boy bitten by a spider). Copyrights also grant exclusive rights to their owners. These exclusive rights include the right to “reproduce the work, prepare derivative works of it, distribute copies of it, perform it publicly and display it publicly.” This brings us to today’s topic: untangling the IP web spun around one of Marvel Comic’s most famous superheroes: the Amazing Spider-Man.
The Origin Story
Marvel Comics first released a Spider-man comic in 1962. The spunky, web-slinging boy soon captured America’s hearts. Over thirty years later, and as a result of a dire financial situation, Marvel Comics began to sell rights to various aspects of Spider-man to other companies.
In 1994, Marvel Comics sold theme park rights to NBC Universal, giving Universal Studios the ability to include their characters – including Spider-man, in theme parks east of the Mississippi River. Fun fact: that’s why Universal is still able to use the characters in their Orlando Park, and why Disney was able to recently open an Avengers campus out in California (since Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009).
Later in 1998, Marvel Comics sold film and merchandise rights to Spider-man and all related Spider-man characters to Sony Pictures. At this time, Marvel Comics retained the rights to the comics, but the film and merchandise rights were to remain with Sony so long as a new movie was released every 5 years. Sony went on to make several Spider-man movies, some of which were outstanding successes:
The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man series: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007).
The Andrew Garfield Series: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). These were less popular with fans and critics than the Tobey Maquire series. [Editor’s Note: for shame!]
The smash-hit animated film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018), with a sequel on the horizon (2022). Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse breathed new life into Sony Pictures and swiped an Oscar from a typically Disney-dominated category.
Sony Pictures still retains film rights to Spider-man, although things got a little dicey when the Walt Disney Company entered the scene.
A New Era
When Disney bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009, the iconic entertainment company received film rights to most Marvel comic characters (with the exception of Spider-man and the Fox-owned ones, like the X-Men and Fantastic Four – which was easily resolved when Disney bought 21st Century Fox in 2019). As Disney started to ramp up its production of Marvel movies, fans questioned: what about Spider-Man?
This eventually prompted a deal between Sony Pictures and Disney in 2017, which allowed Disney to split Sony’s film rights to Spider-Man (it also gave Disney merchandise rights, due to Sony’s financial concerns). What followed was a resurgence of the character, played by Tom Holland, who quickly reclaimed the hearts of America. Holland appeared as Spider-Man in:
Captain America: Civil War (2016), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019), and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). Interestingly enough, Spider-Man: Far from Home was Sony’s most profitable motion picture of all time, supporting the idea that this partnership with Disney was not only good for storyline continuity, but also for Sony’s pocketbook.
From an intellectual property perspective, Disney and Sony share the exclusive copyright rights to these films, whereas Sony retains their exclusive copyright rights to the earlier Spider-Man films. In other words, Sony’s earlier Spider-Man movies, and any they decide to produce on their own in the future at least every 5 years, remain solely their own. So, while the same character (Spider-man) is used by both companies, there are distinct differences in the plotlines. For example, some villains are exclusive to Sony, and Disney would have to license them from Sony in addition to this current deal if they were to make an appearance in a movie with Tom Holland. This creates two distinct Spider-man universes, of which more negotiations will have to take place if there is to be any cross-over.
Think of it this way: the IP rights to Spider-Man are a lot like a timeshare building. Marvel Comics built the building (representative of the merchandise and film rights to Spider-Man) and sold it to Sony. Disney, by acquiring Marvel Entertainment (aka Marvel Comics), essentially purchased a period of time in one of the building’s units. So, Disney is able to use its unit for the contracted period of time and has ownership rights to that part of the building (e.g., the rights to the Spider-man they create in Disney’s greater MCU). But Sony currently possesses and has rights to the rest of the building (e.g., the older Spider-man movies and any future ones they create at least every 5 years).
What’s Next for The Amazing Spider-Man
The Sony-Disney partnership fell apart briefly after the release of Far from Home, but Holland and fans persuaded the two entertainment giants to go back to the drawing table and negotiate two more Holland/Spider-man movies, one of which, Spider-Man: No Way Home, was released in late 2021. This isn’t stopping Sony from continuing to make the most out of their own Spider-verse. Sony will continue to make Spider-man movies at least every five years if they want to keep their film rights to the character. For example, Venom satisfies this requirement because he was included in the original deal between Sony and Marvel Comics as a character related to Spider-man. This likely means a lot more action-packed storylines for fans to enjoy, each owned by a different company or shared between them, creating a web as exciting as the superhero who casts them himself. This tangled web of IP just means that Sony and Disney have to take great care when deciding what stories they want to (and can) weave.
[This blog was prepared, written, and painstakingly crafted by our patent novice (intern) Amanda Vaughan. Standard, hopefully, familiar-sounding, disclaimer: Any opinions expressed here are of the writer’s. Any information provided is for educational or informative purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.]