The marvellous world of superhero licensing

The Marvel franchise has enjoyed unprecedented box office success over the last decade, culminating in numerous films, TV series and other digital media. The most famous of these films focussing on The Avengers, Marvel Studios’ mascot super heroes. For a shared fictional universe as vast as the one Marvel Studios (Marvel) have presented, there have been surprisingly few issues in production. However in 2013, when details of the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, were being released, an interesting IP dispute raised its head. Specifically, there were some additions to the Avengers family – Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – that fans of the original comics had seen before in another successful movie franchise, X-Men. Adding to the speculation was the announcement that Evan Peters had been cast as Quicksilver in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past.

But why would this cause confusion?

The character of Quicksilver is famously a mutant, a key part of the X-Men comic books and crucially, Marvel does not own the rights to the X-Men, they’re instead owned by 20th Century Fox (Fox). Back in 1993, when Marvel Studios was struggling financially, they licensed out some of their characters to various other studios, while keeping the rights to The Avengers. Fox bought the film rights for the X-Men. From the first instalment of the X-Men film in 2000, it was established that Fox had the reputation for the X-Men and the mutant superheroes that make up that team.

So what was the problem with Quicksilver?

There are a number of characters that branched over a complicated middle ground of IP between the two studios. The rights affected both Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but let’s look at Quicksilver alone as he has so far been the only one cast in both an X-Men film, and an Avengers film. Quicksilver (aka Pietro Maximoff) first appeared in the X-Men comics in 1964, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. He is a mutant that can move at lightning speeds and notably was revealed to be a son of Magneto, one of the most famous X-Men villains. Problematically, over the course of the comics, he became a crucial part of both the X-Men and The Avengers comics.

This meant that both Marvel and Fox would have the rights to use aspects of the copyright that makes up Quicksilver under the licensing agreements. Both films were therefore allowed to depict Quicksilver on screen. For Fox, this was straightforward – no mention of The Avengers. But there were some caveats on Marvel’s use of the character. The key ones being that in The Avengers universe, Marvel cannot refer to Quicksilver as a mutant, or depict any connection to the X-Men, nor Magneto.

In Age of Ultron, Marvel took extra steps to distance themselves from any overlap. Notably, “Quicksilver” was referred to solely by his name, Pietro Maximoff, in the film and the character, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, was of Eastern European descent, his parents mentioned as being killed by a bombing when he was a child. Additionally, the use of the word “enhanced” was used to explain his powers, with amendments to his backstory such that they were formed through experimentation by Hydra, a villainous organisation portrayed in the Marvel films.

Based on the continued expansion of the Marvel universe and the number of licensing agreements that stem back to the decisions the studio made in the 90s, there was the possibility of further conflicts arising. However, the recent purchase of Fox Studios by Disney should clear up the murky overlap between the studios, as this will bring the X-Men under the same umbrella company as Marvel. The manner by which each studio dealt with Quicksilver ended up being an intriguing case study in how shared IP rights in elements of a character could be similarly depicted in two separate media entities.

Amanda Morton, Trainee Patent Attorney

Amanda Morton, Former POF Attorney

BEng (Chem)(Hons), LLB

Amanda previously worked for an intellectual property (IP) commercialisation company that uses private and public investment to develop new spin-out ventures sourced primarily from research partners, such as universities and Crown Research Institutes. She worked as an IP researcher on a variety of projects predominately in the areas of chemical and food engineering.