Stan Lee Media, a company that says it controls the rights to Marvel characters including Spider Man and Iron Man, has filed suit in U.S. District Court in Colorado against the Walt Disney Co seeking "billions of dollars of profits."
Stan Lee, no longer associated with the company, created many of Marvel's stable of comic book characters. The company claims Lee assigned it his rights to those characters in 1998 but then agreed a month later to assign the same rights to Marvel Enterprises.
Disney acquired Marvel Enterprises, which had been renamed Marvel Entertainment, in 2009 for $4.3 billion (2.6 billion pounds).
"The Walt Disney Company has represented to the public that it, in fact, owns the copyright to these characters as well as hundreds of other characters created by Stan Lee," the suit alleges. "Those representations made to the public by the Walt Disney Company are false."
The lawsuit focuses on successful movies based on Marvel characters that Disney has released since its Marvel acquisition. Those films include "The Avengers," which has grossed more than $1.5 billion in worldwide sales and is second only to "Avatar" and "Titanic," according to movie site Box Office Mojo.
"This lawsuit is without merit," Walt Disney said in a statement. "It arises out of the same core facts and legal claims that have been rejected by three federal district court judges."
Stan Lee Media, which said it was created in 1999 to "sue to recover damages to its assets," has been involved in what it called a "somewhat tortured history" of litigation dating from 2001 over corporate governance issues and the characters rights in cases filed in Colorado, New York and California.
They include suits between the company, its shareholders and Lee.
The latest suit claims that Stan Lee Media owns the rights "to the billions of dollars that Disney has generated, or allowed others to generate". It cites more than $3.5 billion from motion pictures, and what it calculates is more than $2 billion from "other media," merchandising and the Broadway show "Spiderman: Turn off the Dark."
(Editing by Jane Merriman)