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Who should profit from someone’s work?

Date: 2/27/2014

By G. Michael Dobbs

Here’s an ethical dilemma for you: if you know that a corporation is making money from intellectual property developed by a freelancer who is now unable to profit from his or her creation should you support it?

I’m careful to use the word “ethical” here as the legal side of many of these issues is perhaps much more cut and dried and not necessarily in favor of the person who actually created something.

I bring this subject up as there has been a continuing campaign in social media to force the Disney/Marvel Comics/ABC corporate juggernaut to acknowledge the creations of comic book artist Jack Kirby and their contribution to the franchise film series featuring Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, among others.

Kirby died a number of years ago and his estate has been mounting legal challenges – so far unsuccessfully – to try to force Disney/Marvel/ABC into making some sort of payments.

I’m sure some people would dismiss this issue as it involves comic book characters, but considering the box office returns from the films it is clear that far more than comic book fans are enjoying the films and making them a phenomenon.

The question revolves around doing the right thing as opposed to doing what is required.

The newest Marvel Comic adaptation is now ramping up its online publicity and there is a new effort to address this issue. The new movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” features a talking, gun-slinging raccoon named Rocket Raccoon that was created by writer Bill Mantlo. It was a freelance assignment for him in 1976. He left comics to pursue a career in law, and in 1992, he was struck by a hit and run driver and sustained serious injuries.

Since that time he has lived in an assisted living facility. It has been reported his family can barely keep up with the expenses and in light of the film’s release, there is a campaign to raise money to help him.

Here is the moral and ethical question: should a corporation acknowledge any sort of obligation to share profits from an ancillary product derived from an intellectual property it commissioned? Especially when those ancillary products didn’t exist when the property was first conceived?

I know some people would say the Jack Kirbys and Bill Mantlos of the world knew what they were getting in for when they accepted a freelance assignment. Of course, Mantlo had no idea that in 1976 when he came up with Rocket Raccoon that 38 years later the character would be part of a multi-million dollar movie. For that matter, neither did his editor or publisher ever dream of something like that happening.

In 1975, the creators of Superman, then elderly and financially insecure, were the centers of a successful public relations effort that convinced Warner Communications to once again give them creator’s credit on everything involving the character and a stipend of $20,000 a year.

In 1999, the heirs of Superman writer Jerry Siegel launched an effort to regain the copyright to the character that has yet to be legally resolved.

Is there enough money being generated by these pop culture creations to fuel the corporate machines and help the people who brought them to life? Sure there is. Helping Bill Mantlo spend the rest of his years without worrying about paying for his medical care is something that Disney/Marvel Comics/ABC could do in a heartbeat and no one but the accountants would ever notice.

The problem is the precedent it sets. Apparently the idea of creative people being fairly compensated is a very dangerous one.

The trouble with this issue is on the face of it the law is on the side of corporation. The creators knew it was a freelance gig and accepted the check. The trouble is they gave up rights that they couldn’t conceive even would exist.

This concern extends to other kinds of creative endeavors.

Here’s what I suggest: if you enjoy such films, donate the same amount of money you spend on a ticket or the cost of a download or DVD to the Hero Initiative (, which helps comic book artist and writers in need.

If you’re inclined to learn more about Bill Mantlo go to I’m sending him a check.

Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.