Ghost RiderThe Ghost Rider has been brought back to life by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City in a ruling that gives writer Gary Friedrich another shot to prove he didn’t relinquish his renewal rights in the comic.

The appellate court found that a lower court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Marvel Characters Inc., there holding that Friedrich had assigned all of his renewal rights to the Ghost Rider.

Friedrich penned the first Ghost Rider comic for publication in the April, 1972, issue of Marvel Spotlight.  This case arose from a “work-for-hire agreement” that the publisher of Marvel comics required Friedrich and all of its free-lance artists to sign in 1978.  He claims the agreement covered only future work and that he retained rights in the main characters and original story. In 2004, after learning Sony Pictures planned to make a Ghost Rider movie, his attorney contacted Sony, asserting his rights to the comic; he later sued Marvel for copyright infringement.

His assertion of rights is rooted in the Copyright Act of 1976, which grants an initial coverage term of twenty-eight years and then a sixty-seven-year renewal period.  In 2000, the Ghost Rider initial copyright term expired, meaning that beginning in 2001, the renewal would have vested in Friedrich, as original author. A U.S. District Court, however, granted summary judgment  in favor of Marvel, construing all Ghost Rider rights were transferred to the publisher under the Friedrich-signed work-for-hire contract, with its language shifting “to Marvel forever all rights of any kind and nature in and to the Work.”

The appellate court vacated that ruling, finding Marvel’s 1978 agreement was ambiguous and there still were material facts at issue as to the intent of the parties that needed to be resolved at trial. Denny Chin, an appellate judge, declared the sentence that defined Freidrich’s work was “ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased” and he found the “forever” phrase unclear as to “whether it covered a work published six years earlier.” He wrote: “The contract contains no explicit reference to renewal rights and most of the language merely tracks the 1976 Act’s definition of ‘work made for hire.’ ” Marvel had argued that Friedrich’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations because it had repudiated his ownership claims more than three years before he sued — an issue Chin, too, said should be resolved at trial.  He addressed Friedrich’s motion for a summary finding that he was Ghost Rider‘s author  or at least joint author, saying this issue should be answered by a trial court.

Marvel had demanded $17,000 in an injunction order from Friedrich for selling Ghost Rider goods at comic conventions in violation of their copyright; this ruling puts a hold on that order.