When Stan Lee isn’t busy making cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and signing autographs at Comic Cons, he’s likely to be found arguing over the rights to his characters in the court of law. This time, however, he’s defending more than just his ownership of characters, but of his name, likeness, and identity.
In 2001, Stan Lee, Gill Champion, and Arthur Lieberman formed a media production company called POW! Entertainment. The complaint goes on to refer to Champion and Lieberman as “unscrupulous businessmen,” stating that the men took advantage of Lee’s age, emotional state, and disability (macular degeneration) in order to trick him into signing away the exclusive rights to his name.
According to the complaint, Duffy, Champion, and Lee’s ex-publicist Jerry Olivarez (who is being accused of fraud and elder abuse in a separate suit initiated by Lee earlier this year) requested that Lee sign a non-exclusive license with POW! for the Stan Lee name, image, and likeness on September 28, 2018. While Lee was under the impression that the non-exclusive license to his identity was for use in creative works owned by POW!, this was not the case; it was apparently for the purpose of selling POW! to Camsing international, a Hong Kong Corporation.
Unfortunately for both Camsing and Lee, however, the complaint alleges that the sale of POW! to Camsing involved a separate, illegitimate document that Lee did not agree to. This illegitimate document assigned the exclusive right to Lee’s name, identity, image, and likeness to POW! as opposed to the non-exclusive rights that Lee had originally intended.
Interestingly, Lee’s macular degeneration leaves him unable to read. This means that Lee generally has advisers read documents to him before they are signed so he can approve. This was known to Duffy, Champion, and Olivarez, but the complaint states that Lee does not recall anyone reading the illegitimate document to him. If anyone had read it to him, he claims, he would not have signed it.
Lee has plenty of experience with the language and execution of non-exclusive licenses. The complaint notes his history of taking part in non-exclusive licensing agreements and the fact that he had never outright sold these rights. If the document he signed with POW! was an exclusive license, therefore, he would have known better than to sign it.
The complaint alleges, among many other things, that Duffy and Champion closed the deal regarding the sale of POW! to Camsing before disclosing any information about the terms of the sale to Lee. At the same time the dealings were negotiated and the sale of POW! was made, however, Lee was busy grieving the loss of his wife.
On top of this, the complaint reports that Lee’s business was being massively mismanaged by those he trusted within days of his wife’s death. The complaint states that “certain individuals took great advantage of Lee” by carrying out various acts without his consent or knowledge, including firing Lee’s banker of over 20 years, firing his lawyers, buying an $890,000 condominium, and forging a $300,000 check without Lee’s knowledge. POW! also took control of Lee’s social media accounts and impersonated him.
More specifically, the complaint accuses Duffy and Champion of POW! of conspiracy to broker a sham deal to sell POW! and to fraudulently steal Stan Lee’s name, identity, image, and likeness in order to benefit at Lee’s expense. According to the complaint, the damages in the suit add up to over one billion dollars.
POW! may be found liable for fraud in the execution by inducing Lee to sign the fraudulent agreement, by lifting his signature, or forging his signature. Additionally, it’s noted that the defendants to the case have stolen Lee’s personal effects, as Lee kept many of his personal belongings in the POW! office and he has since been locked out and denied access.
Apparently Camsing has responded to the complaint publicly, stating that the claims are ridiculous and unwarranted, but the suit has not been officially filed yet. Since we don’t know if and when the complaint will be legally served on POW!, it is hard to say when or how the parties here will respond or if Lee can dig up the document he actually signed. This should be an interesting case if POW! chooses to fight it, but it will take a long time to find out how this one plays out.
Author, Caroline Womack, is a 2L at Quinnipiac University School of Law and primarily studies intellectual property law, focusing on video game and internet law.