Superhero intellectual property disputes

Many of our best-loved superheroes have been the subjects of intellectual property disputes. It takes authors, comic book publishers, and movie studios to build iconic superhero franchises, but who gets the credit—and the cash—for bringing our heroes to life?

by Bilal Kaiser
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

What do Batman, Superman, and even the X-Men have in common? Aside from being iconic superheroes in American pop culture history, each character's creators have been involved in various legal disputes over the years. Intellectual property disputes, instances in which one party claims to have legal ownership of a creative concept or project, do come up frequently in the creative industry. For classic superhero characters with multiple creators and generations of fans, an IP dispute can quickly grow into a complicated and costly battle for creative rights—and control.

Here are three noteworthy cases of IP disputes involving superheroes in recent years:

1. Batman

Batman is one of the most popular superheroes, and film directors Christopher Nolan and Matt Reeves reignited our fascination with him in their respective movies. But despite the popularity of the Caped Crusader, the 1960s TV series starring Adam West was delayed being released on DVD due to a rumored legal battle between DC Comics and film studios Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox. The '60s series was finally released in 2014.

2. Superman

The Man of Steel, otherwise known as Superman, was co-created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster in 1938. Since then, the character has been resurrected time and time again in comic books, movies, TV series, cartoons, toys, etc.

In August 2009, heirs of Jerry Siegel (and later, the Shuster estate) fought to capture the U.S. copyright for Superman and his assorted identity features (alter-ego Clark Kent and his job at Daily Planet, among others) from Warner Brothers and DC Comics—and won. Now, in addition to owning the copyright as granted by federal courts, the heirs may be owed profits that the entertainment giants have made from the character since 1999, which is when the copyright was back-dated to take effect.

But the battle over the Man of Steel continues. In May 2010, yet another lawsuit commenced.

3. Spawn

The popular comic book characters of Spawn were at the center of another IP battle. In the 1990s, Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane co-created characters for the Spawn series, but due to unfortunate business circumstances, McFarlane's company went bankrupt, and he was unable to compensate Gaiman.

As business got better for McFarlane, his company started releasing characters derived from the duo's original characters. Gaiman sued on the basis that the new characters were simply variations on the original characters—for which Gaiman was owed a share of the profits—and the judge agreed.

Superheroes may save innocent citizens from burning buildings or evil henchmen, but their creators have no superhuman ability to protect their work. As more characters are introduced or resurrected for a new generation of fans, you can bet that creators, publishers, and entertainment studios will do all they can to secure the best legal protection.

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Bilal Kaiser

About the Author

Bilal Kaiser

Bilal has been writing for LegalZoom since 2008. His areas of interest include entrepreneurship, small business marketin… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.