Ghost Rights- What’s legal and what’s right..?

There has been a lot of buzz on the internet lately about lawsuits involving Watchmen, The Walking Dead, Superman, Spawn, and the Gary Friedrich VS Marvel case over the rights to the character Ghost Rider.

Most of the recent talk on the internet came about after writer Gary Friedrich had sued Marvel for rights to the Ghost Rider character and profits he felt due to him from the Ghost Rider movies and merchandising.  He not only lost the judgment, but Marvel counter sued for $17,000 claiming Gary had been selling and signing unlicensed Ghost Rider merchandise at comic conventions. They also wanted Gary to no longer be able to refer to himself as “the creator of Ghost Rider“. Fans and other creators lost their shit (I was one of them). Twitter, Facebook, news sites, and blogs all over the web are reporting/commenting on it. At first I was furious- “How dare they?!!”, but the more I read about the case and the history behind it the  more I’m not sure who is right or who is wrong- or exactly just what is legal. It’s a hot mess for sure!

(Gary Friedrich and John Gleckler )

Gary has been credited as the creator of Ghost Rider (and “envisioned by”), though there has been some dispute by writer/editor Roy Thomas and artist Mike Ploog over the years as to the creation, or should I say “co-creation” of GR- especially the look of the character including the flaming skull.

To add to the confusion, there’s also the fact that there was also a western character in 1949 named “Ghost Rider” created by writer Ray Krank and artist Dick Ayers for editor Vincent Sullivan years before Marvel’s 1967 cowboy version by Friedrich, Thomas, and Ayers- or the 1972  Friedrich, Thomas, and Ploog hot-headed Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, or the versions that came after that one .

(John Gleckler and Brian Morris)

Some folks on the internet are depicting Marvel (and its parent company Disney) as a villain- a soulless corporation out to destroy the little guy.  They not only were keeping the character and profits from this comics creator, but were suing a man who was having a hard time just paying his mortgage these days. “Boo- hiss..!”

Others say that Gary knew what he was doing when he endorsed his paycheck and should have been smarter and made a better deal. Some say he’s just a bitter old man. More say Marvel is just protecting what is Marvel’s. “Why, if Gary hadn’t sued Marvel they wouldn’t have counter-sued him for the $17,000.” Those folks feel he got what he deserved. Even some fellow creators have been a bit mean-spirited. Rumors abound now that since Marvel has gone after Gary it’s only a matter of time before they start going after anyone and everyone at conventions who they feel are infringing on their copyrights. There’s debate over artists who have worked for them may not be safe doing con sketches anymore. Some comics artists have come out and said they will not be drawing anything that is not theirs– even ones who actually work for Marvel and/or DC and should be okay sketching at cons.

I haven’t seen the paperwork Gary (or Roy Thomas or Mike Ploog) signed or didn’t sign. Even if I had I don’t know if I could make heads of tails out of the legal speak that contracts like this are made up of.  I am not an intellectual property attorney, and some folks would claim I’m not an intellectual! I did read some of the recent court papers and they really made my head hurt. Also listened to Comic Geek Speak today which helped a bit-
Comic Talk – Legal Brief Edition with Joe Sergi- Episode 1191 (February 15, 2012)

I do think a company like Marvel has to be aggressive at protecting what is theirs, but at what cost? While  defending your copyrights do you try going after the jugular and  bankrupt someone who has helped make your company millions of dollars? Is scaring off any other creators who might think of suing for what they feel is due to them worth the bad publicity and “evil corporation” image backlash? Should fans rally behind Gary the little guy and help sling rocks at the Goliath that is Marvel (and Disney)? Maybe- maybe not. I’m still confused and conflicted.

Mongol General: “Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life? ”
Mongol:” The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair. ”
Mongol General:” Wrong! Conan! What is best in life? ”
Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. ”
Mongol General:” That is good! That is good.”

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Is crushing your enemies best in life?

What if companies did reach out to creators and give them any extra compensation? Would those creators be thankful for the peace (or “piece”) offering, or would they be offended by “scraps” and turn around and sue for even more of the profits pie? Trying to do the “right thing” could open publishers up to even more lawsuits if creators feel they are entitled to more than what was offered. Sharks aren’t the only creatures who can smell blood in the water.

DC seems to pay more royalties to their creators than Marvel does (I have heard so from comic creators who have worked for both Marvel and DC), but has DC not done some fine print legal moves in contracts that could be considered  “tricky” at the very least? Writer Alan Moore seems to think so. (Google the Watchmen lawsuits) Again, I’m not  a lawyer, or even play one on TV, but I  have lived long enough and witnessed enough to know that what is legal is not always right (Law & Order rules!), or that doing the right thing is always a good thing. For companies it’s better to do the legal thing, well- when they choose to. Let’s be real- companies are out to make profits. Corporations have layers whose only jobs are sending out cease and desist letters to protect their assets or let them know just how far they can bend/stretch the law. Some little guys will get screwed, while others become corporations themselves. People can sue for just about any reason, but things can and will come back to bite you in the ass.

Times do change, though. Shouldn’t contracts and agreements made long ago change as well, or at least be updated? Should contracts be forever and ever, amen?

I’ve heard some creators come out and say that if you create it- own it. It’s great advice, but for some creators it’s comes a bit late. Creators who needed a paycheck back in the day  endorsed and cashed that paycheck. Many of the writers and artists who give that advice got their break working on DC and Marvel characters, and are able to own their creations now because of creators before them taking a stand on creators’ rights. A lot of things are different today than in the 30’s,40’s, 50’s, 60’s , 70’s, 80’s and even the 90’s (IMAGE anyone?) When Gary signed away rights for a paycheck there really weren’t comic book based movies being made (Superman 1978, Conan 1982, Batman 1989, Ghost Rider 2007). No VHS tapes, DVDs, or video games. No web comics or digital downloads. Toys, tees, posters, statues, etc. weren’t cash cows until George Lucas blew the merchandise roof off with Star Wars in 1977. Times change, and a contract signed decades ago needs to be looked at again and possibly renegotiated, right? Unfortunately for Gary the judge ruled against him, and with a different judge it may have gone the other way. The court’s decision may have been legal, but I just don’t think it was right. Times change and the contract needed to be updated to keep up with the character’s use and technology.  Look at how much the comics industry has changed in just the last 5-10 years. I do hope Gary and other Marvel creators from that era are getting some royalties, and that it’s better for creators these days.

I don’t blame Marvel for protecting themselves, but I do blame them for not taking better care of the creators that created their universe over the years. I mean, c’mon- even the face of Marvel- Stan Lee, has sued the company! And don’t even get me started on what was/is owed to Jack Kirby and other creators Marvel has made millions/billions off of. I feel that the creators should be treated with more respect, and not just as “work for hire”.  I think you would see more company support and loyalty from creators- and fans. Which is cheaper- a % of profit$ to a creator from the start, or the legal bills from lawyers and backlash from angry boycotting fans down the road? I don’t know- I’m not an accountant or fortune teller, either. I would hope  the publishing company/movie studio and the creative folks could all profit, but know it doesn’t always go that way. Today many actors are getting paid more to play a character in one movie than the character’s creator(s) have ever made, or will ever make.

I’ve worked for companies before that have told me I was part of the family, in on the ground floor, or a partner and got promised the moon only to be tossed aside and shown the door later. I got paid for my ideas and art, but not much or what it was truly worth. They ended up driving nice cars and living in nice neighborhoods, while I took the bus back to a house in the hood I couldn’t make the payments on. It hurts, makes you feel humiliated, unappreciated, taken advantage of, screwed over, and a lot of other things you tend to feel while standing in line at the unemployment office. I  learned a valuable lesson- get everything in writing! Asking for things in writing can not only help cover your rear, but show you who’s serious about a project and/or not out to screw you. My friend Dave Beaty and I had amutual “friend” want to team up with us to start a publishing company to do comics, tees, and prints after he saw we were developing a new comic series. This “friend” had self-published a comic series before with other friends of his (it didn’t end well) and wanted to get back into comics. When we asked to see something in writing he got upset and decided to drop the whole thing. Bullet dodged!

I can totally see how someone like Gary would feel when seeing others profit on something you had a major hand in. It sucks.

Dave and I went  on to create and self-publish the comic series “Bushi Tales” (with help from his wife Micah). We completed three issues and an art book, had a soundtrack, were distributed by Diamond, featured in WIZARD Magazine, set up at the San Diego Comic Con (and many others), had a great fan base around Phoenix and Memphis, did some comic signings and podcasts, and had a couple one shot spin off issues planned. Things were going well., or seemed to be. Bad timing, bad business decisions, and other factors have caused the series to go on “permanent hiatus”. We didn’t get rich off of it, but had fun publishing it, enjoyed traveling to cons, met a lot of great people, and  good or bad it’s still our baby. We own it.

I hope we can get back to telling more BT stories someday. It was a lot of fun to have that kind of freedom. I truly believe in investing in yourself, but I don’t recommend cashing in your retirement to do comics. Another lesson learned.

This past year or so has been one of the best and worst years of my life and I’ve done a lot of soul searching as a person and  an artist. I’ve been fighting whether or not I should continue doing art, conventions, or pursuing a dream of working for “the big two.” There are days when it seems I can’t give my art away (which I don’t recommend!), or other days when that’s all people want me to do. “Freelance” isn’t free! Some days I want to create, others I sit and wonder what to create, the next day I get really pissed at the comics industry or “comic fans” on-line- so much so  I’m ready to quit and flip burgers! I probably should stay away from Facebook and Twitter..! My wife Nicki has told me I couldn’t quit doing art no matter how hard I tried- it’s too much a part of who I am. I could have any day job but would always be compelled to do art. As usual, she’s right. I’d rather try and fail, than regret never trying- although I’m not opposed to succeeding, really! I don’t want to be the bitter person who gave it all up. I’ve seen those people- I know those people. Conversations with them are extremely negative and  just damn depressing. Nicki would kill me if I became like that. She’s a very tolerant person and a very supportive wife, but even she has her limits!

I don’t ask for a lot. Like many creative people, I just want to happy and create art. Is that such an impossible thing to for someone who was born to  draw funny..? Some days it sure seems like it.

But then there’s another question, if I’m going to do art- what to do..? I love painting and drawing horror, fantasy, and superheroes, but as we have seen times are a changing. I need to create something of my own. If I’m going to do shows I need to re-design my table set up, product mix, and promo items. I need to look at hitting new shows and maybe passing on others I’ve been doing. I need to have new stuff every time I come back to a show. I need to pick a direction and  promote/brand myself better. Most importantly I need to own what I create!

I guess that’s what this whole blog is really about, and thanks to others who came before me so that I can say it, too.

I’ve met Gary Friedrich at a couple conventions I attend each year and each time he’s always been very friendly and willing to sign comics for fans. I wish Gary much luck, and if you’d like to help him check out writer Steve Niles’ site here and follow him @SteveNiles on Twitter to find out more about auctions and events to benefit Gary. Ghost Rider was one of my favorite comic characters growing up, and I have a lot of fond memories of the 70’s series, seeing him guest star with Spiderman in Marvel Team-Up, or as a member of The Champions. Some of the issues I can still remember when and where I bought them. Thanks, Gary!

Who knows, maybe this Ghost Rider situation will make more people aware of the legalities of comics, art and what an “intellectual property” is. Maybe they will stop and read the small print (or have a lawyer read it)? Maybe new friendships and partnerships will happen  by helping Gary or other creators in need. Maybe it will encourage artists and writers out there to come up with more new creations. I hope so. It’s really lit a fire under my butt and makes me want to create.

Speaking of creating, check out Stephen Downey’s website for details on a proposed “Creator Owned Day” on March 1st. You might also want to read Jeff Parkers blog on “How To Co-Create Comic Books”, and  Katie Lane’s Work Made For Hire post  “Let’s Be Friends” before doing any co-creating. I’d also suggest you read and understand  everything before you sign anything, and make friends with a good lawyer, too! (CYA= cover yo’ ass!)

Now get out there and create- I promise to do the same!


Ghost Rights- What’s legal and what’s right..?
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