Aug 1, 2010

On the Gaiman/McFarlane Spawn Case -- A Question For Legal Pundits!

Okay, so Robot6 has reported that it has been legally ruled that the Spawn characters Domina, Tiffany, and Dark Ages Spawn, created by Todd McFarlane:

Domina (sorry I couldn't find a better picture)
Dark Ages Spawn

Were based on the characters co-created by Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman, Medieval Spawn and Angela, also for Spawn:

Medieval Spawn

Now, back in 2002, Neil Gaiman sued Todd McFarlane for his rightful share of these characters (and one more named Cogliostro) - as far as I understand it, Neil's work wasn't work-for-hire, and thus he deserves equal share, which I won't argue with obviously - and then just won a second case now saying that since Domina, Tiffany, and Dark Ages Spawn are derivatives of Angela and Medieval Spawn, he's entitled to half those profits as well.

Congratulations to Neil Gaiman and the charities his share will go to!

But now it's time for my question.

What makes Tiffany, Domina, and Dark Ages Spawn more derivative of Angela and Medieval Spawn than Angela and Medieval Spawn are, themselves, of Spawn?

Because, if you look at it, Medieval Spawn is - obviously - just another version of Spawn. And Angela is Spawn's antithesis - she's his exact opposite and everything she is is informed by him as a character. He's an ugly man from hell who keeps himself fully clothed, and she's a beautiful angel from heaven who wears, uh, practically nothing. Even their symbols are inverted versions of each other's:


Does this mean that Carmine Infantino actually should have half the rights to Batgirl, and Otto Binder and Curt Swan have the rights to Supergirl?

After all, they seem to be just as derivative of Batman and Superman as Angela is to Spawn.

Where's it all fall under, legal folks? Enlighten the Comics Cube!

On another note, here's a direct quote from the judge, Barbara Crabb:

"Much as defendant [McFarlane] tries to distinguish the two knight Hellspawn, he never explains why, of all the universe of possible Hellspawn incarnations, he introduced two knights from the same century," Crabb writes. "Not only does this break the Hellspawn 'rule' that Malebolgia never returns a Hellspawns [sic] to Earth more than once every 400 years (or possibly every 100 years, as suggested in Spawn, No. 9, exh. #1, at 4), it suggests that what defendant really wanted to do was exploit the possibilities of the knight introduced in issue no. 9. [...]

"If defendant really wanted to differentiate the new Hellspawn, why not make him a Portuguese explorer in the 16th century; an officer of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, an idealistic recruit of Simon Bolivar in the 19th century, a companion of Odysseus on his voyages, a Roman gladiator, a younger brother of Emperor Nakamikado in the early 18th century, a Spanish conquistador, an aristocrat in the Qing dynasty, an American Indian warrior or a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I? It seems far more than coincidence that Dark Ages (McFarlane) Spawn is a knight from the same century as Medieval (Gaiman) Spawn."
Todd McFarlane, HIRE THAT JUDGE RIGHT NOW for a writing gig!

EDIT: After a lot of poking around the comicsweb, it's pretty clear that it's not a question of what's "derivative" or not; it's a question of pure legality. Image Comics at the time of Angela's creation was very proud of being creator-friendly, giving all creators rights to the characters they created - or, in this case - half the rights. McFarlane never had Gaiman sign a form that said this was work-for-hire. Todd just assumed that it was; Neil assumed it wasn't, and the court ruled in Neil's favor. Legally speaking, there seems to be no way to argue that Neil is in the right.

And therefore, just like Neil owns half the copyright to Angela for the creation, and the other to Todd for the source of the derivation, so too does Todd own half the copyright to Tiffany for the creation and Neil the other half for the source of the derivation.

It sounds like a big, complicated, legal mess.


fanboy420 said...

apparently in the earlier battle, a court ruled that Medieval Spawn is "sufficiently distinct from Spawn to be copyrightable as a derivative work." cuz you know, he's Spawn, but from the dark ages. Suuuuuure.

Moral of the story: all you comic book creators out there who want to collaborate, make sure you divvy up from the get-go.

Duy Tano said...

Yep, I'm not sure how this works - first, Gaiman wins the rights to some obviously derivative characters that he co-created, fair enough, then he wins the rights to some obviously derivative characters that he didn't co-create. Wha?

Don't get me wrong; if we're going with gut feel, I'd definitely side with Neil on this one, but my head can't wrap itself around it. What exactly are the criteria that makes something "sufficiently distinct"?

fanboy420 said...

Apparently, in the Federal legal system, a soul patch and some glasses. LOL

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