NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Thursday that influential comic book artist Jack Kirby's creations such as the Fantastic Four and the Hulk belong to Marvel Entertainment, and not his heirs.
The decision in New York by District Judge Colleen McMahon scuttles a copyright claim by Kirby's heirs that threatened to undermine everything from Marvel's movie projects to its integration into parent company Walt Disney Co.
"I conclude that there are no genuine issues of material fact, and that the Kirby Works were indeed works for hire within the meaning of the Copyright Act of 1909," McMahon wrote in her 50-page ruling.
Jack Kirby, who died in 1994, is an iconic comic book artist whose role in the rise of Marvel is nearly on-par with the company's former editor and writer Stan Lee. Kirby helped create such characters as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, Captain America and Thor.
Kirby's heirs in 2009 laid claim to copyrights for work he created from 1958 to 1963, when he had no written contract with Marvel and he drew up many of his most popular characters.
During that five-year period, Kirby co-created such Marvel comic book titles as "The Fantastic Four," "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Avengers."
Marvel sued the Kirby heirs after failing to reach a negotiated settlement with them over their copyright claims, which led to the ruling by McMahon on Thursday that found the rights to the characters belongs to Marvel.
McMahon said in her ruling that the case was not about whether Kirby and other artists "were treated 'fairly' by companies that grew rich off the fruit of their labor."
Instead, the case was simply about the law, McMahon wrote, and the judge pointed to a pair of 1970s written agreements between Kirby and Marvel that she said bolstered the company's position that it owns characters Kirby helped create.
Marc Toberoff, an attorney for the Kirby heirs, said he plans an appeal of the decision.
"We knew when we took this on that it would not be easy given the arcane and contradictory state of 'work for hire' case law under the 1909 Copyright Act," he said.
In 2009, Marvel was bought by Disney for $4 billion. In the past decade, Marvel has seen its characters such as Spider-Man and Iron Man soar in movies. Its latest release "Thor" has earned over $447 million at worldwide box offices.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Christine Kearney)