Yesterday’s decision by Judge Katherine Forrest of the southern district of New York federal court provides a glimpse of insight into the development and ownership of popular comic book characters. The case pits Gary Friedrich, the creator of the Ghost Rider character, against Marvel Comics, publisher of the Ghost Rider comic books.
Ghost Rider is a super hero with a skeletal head emitting fire, riding a fire emblazoned motorcycle. The character became popular, spawning video games and a 2007 Nicholas Cage movie (also starring Eva Mendes and Sam Elliot).
According to the court, Friedrich conceived and developed the Ghost Rider super hero character in the early 1970s, including additional characters of Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider’s alter ego, Roxanne Simpson and Crash Simpson. Friedrich conceived and wrote the text for the comic book featuring these new characters. Others also wrote and contributed to some of the episodes.
Friedrich sued Marvel for various causes including copyright infringement. The court easily found that Friedrich did not have a copyright claim in that during the period of time that he developed the Ghost Rider characters, Marvel paid Friedrich by check containing an assignment legend. Friedrich acknowledged that he endorsed the checks, and that the checks "said something about by signing over the check I gave over my rights to * * * Marvel." And then in 1978, Friedrich signed a written assignment document by which he expressly granted "to Marvel forever all rights of any kind and nature" in the work he created.
The court pointed out that whenever anyone endorses a check subject to a condition, he accepts the condition. As such, any right that Friedrich may have had in the Ghost Rider characters were assigned by virtue of his endorsement of the checks containing the assignment language. Further, the court observed that the 1978 assignment "undoubtedly conveyed whatever renewal rights he [Friedrich] may have retained, if any."
So, the bottom line is that endorsing a check with assignment language has consequences, as does the signing of a general assignment document. If you are a graphical artist or writer who creates highly valuable characters, do not endorse checks containing assignment language unless you intend to assign your rights. And do not sign a general assignment document unless you intend to fully assign all rights. If your intent is to assign only certain limited rights, and to retain the balance of the rights, then make certain that the assignment language clearly describes what is being assigned and what is being retained.
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