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Comic writer's Ghost Rider copyright lawsuit revived on appeal

U.S. actor Nicolas Cage arrives to promote his movie 'Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance' in Berlin January 23, 2012. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
U.S. actor Nicolas Cage arrives to promote his movie 'Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance' in Berlin January 23, 2012. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A comic book writer who claims he created the flaming-skulled character called Ghost Rider got another chance to press his claim on Tuesday when a U.S. appeals court revived his lawsuit against Marvel Comics.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a 2011 district court ruling that found the rights to the character belonged to Marvel Comics, owned by The Walt Disney Co. It returned the case to the lower court for trial.

Former Marvel freelancer Gary Friedrich, who claims he created the character, will pursue the case "aggressively and vigorously," his lawyer Charles Kramer said.

Ghost Rider, a motorcycle-riding vigilante whose head is a flaming skull, first appeared as a vigilante superhero in 1972.

In 2004, Friedrich began considering legal action against the comic book company when he learned of an impending movie adaptation. He sued Marvel for copyright infringement and claimed that he owned the character and its use in films, as well as toys, video games and other merchandise.

The movie was released in 2007, starring Nicholas Cage and Eva Mendes.

Marvel argued that while Friedrich contributed ideas, the comic was created through a collaborative process.

In 2011, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest agreed with the company, finding Friedrich had relinquished his rights to Ghost Rider.

On Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court deemed that Friedrich's 1978 agreement with Marvel was ambiguous.

"First, the critical sentence defining the 'Work' covered by the Agreement is ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased," Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote in the 48-page opinion. "Second, the language is ambiguous as to whether it covered a work published six years earlier."

The appeals court found that Marvel was not entitled to a judgment based on its argument that a statute of limitations has expired. The court also found that there is a genuine dispute of facts regarding the authorship of the character.

Jeff Klein, a spokesman for Marvel, declined to comment on Tuesday's ruling.

(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by David Gregorio)

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