Many of American comic book publisher Marvel Comics’ iconic characters were created or co-created by Stan Lee. This include the Incredible Hulk, Thor, the Uncanny X-men, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Black Panther, amongst many others. Mr Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922. Over many decades, Mr Lee has turned his nom de plume into a highly recognisable brand.
Indeed, as the table below demonstrates, Mr Lee name has been the subject of various trade mark applications in the US. Within the table, the trade marks marked “live” are current”: the trade marks marked “dead” are inactive.
Those trade marks not featuring a registration number means that the trade mark application is presently under examination by an examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
There has been a flurry of applications for the name “Stan Lee” in April 2018. All of these have been made by a company called Pow! Entertainment LLC – for example:
The critical aspect of this application are the words, “The name… shown in the mark identifies Stan Lee, whose consent to register is made of record.”
Mr Lee disagrees, and filed a lawsuit at the Superior Court of the State of California on 15 May 2018.
Mr Lee accuses POW! and two executives of brokering a “sham” deal to sell POW to a Hong Kong-based company and “fraudulently steal” his name, image and likeness. Mr Lee alleges that the current CEO of POW! (Mr Lee’s former business partner) failed to properly disclose to Mr Lee the terms of the acquisition – an exclusive licence to Mr Lee’s name, image and likeness on a worldwide basis.
This is not a case of a celebrity too busy to read a legal document himself. Mr Lee has advanced macular degeneration and was declared legally blind in 2015. Mr Lee alleges he could not have read the terms of the exclusive license agreement himself. Mr Lee alleges that Pow! used a “bait and switch” tactic, telling Mr Lee that the document was something else.
Mr Lee has never before agreed to an exclusive license. Instead, as the claim notes, Mr Lee has entered into various non-exclusive (as opposed to exclusive) licenses – for example, with Disney, to use Mr Lee’s name, likeness and image in conjunction with the characters Mr Lee created, most clearly manifesting in Marvel Studio’s motion pictures. Mr Lee’s court documents assert, “In each instance in which Lee granted a non-exclusive licence, the licensee has offered to pay a fee for the use of his name, image and likeness, but under no circumstances did Lee ever sell off his personal identity, name, and likeness, which he spent 95 years building up.”
Mr Lee has never been shy about his impact upon American popular culture over the past fifty years. “Given his fame and cultural importance as an American icon and living legend, there is significant commercial interest in the use of his image, name and likeness,” asserts the court documents. He is seeking compensatory and punitive damages totalling $1 billion, rescission of the illegitimate document and injunctive relief.