The late Baltimore novelist Tom Clancy's former wife and his widow are battling over his most famous progeny — the character of Jack Ryan.
The question is who owns the rights to Clancy's spy, whom millions of fans met for the first time in the 1984 book "The Hunt for Red October."
At stake are proceeds that attorneys representing the author's second wife and widow, Alexandra Clancy, estimate to be in "the serious seven figures" from books featuring Ryan and other characters published after the author's death in 2013.
At first glance, the lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court by Alexandra Clancy appears to pit the Clancy estate against two organizations with confusingly similar names: Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Jack Ryan Limited Partnership.
But dig a little deeper, and the lawsuit, filed Friday, becomes about whether Clancy's first wife, Wanda King, is entitled to any money generated by the posthumous books, which include not just Jack Ryan novels but also the so-called "Campus" book series starring Ryan's son, Jack Ryan Jr., and his nephew Dominic Caruso.
Clancy and King were married for nearly three decades before they divorced in 1999. Clancy married Alexandra Llewellyn later that year.
This is the latest legal battle about Clancy's books, stretching back for nearly three decades and initiated by either the author or one of the two women.
"It isn't just about the money," said attorney Lansing R. Palmer, who represents Alexandra Clancy with his co-counsel, Norman L. Smith. "It's about doing the right thing. Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy's most prized possession. Tom Clancy made Jack Ryan; and in a sense Jack Ryan made Tom Clancy."
The Baltimore-born fictional character featured in many Clancy novels was an injured Marine who became a stockbroker, but after earning a quick fortune went to the Naval Academy to teach history. He's soon lured to the CIA as an analyst, working his was up to deputy director, all the while fighting threats to the nation. Eventually he becomes president of the United States.
The suit filed by Clancy's widow contains some twists that wouldn't be out of place in a Tom Clancy novel.
For instance, Clancy didn't actually write the books whose proceeds are in question. The lawsuit centers on contracts signed with J.P. Putnam's Sons in 2014 and 2015 for posthumous novels that continue the Jack Ryan series and that are written in Clancy's style, but by other people.
In addition, Alexandra Clancy is suing the estate representative himself, Baltimore attorney J.W. Thompson "Topper" Webb, who arranged for the two Jack Ryan entities to profit from those contracts.
Tom Clancy created the companies in 1985 and 1992 to hold the copyrights for his books. Wanda King has an ownership stake in those companies. After they divorced, he created a new company to hold the copyrights for his subsequent books.
Alexandra Clancy accuses Webb of violating his fiduciary duties by "inexplicably favoring" the two Ryan entities. She wants a judge to declare that the Jack Ryan character belongs exclusively to the Clancy estate.
Alexandra Clancy previously tried to oust Webb as executor of the author's estate as part of a suit over who should pay $4 million in estate taxes on her husband's $82 million fortune. She won the tax battle, but Webb remained as the estate's representative.
Webb, who works for the law firm Miles & Stockbridge, did not respond to a request for comment. But Robert Brennen, a principal in Miles & Stockbridge, wrote in an email that Webb "has acted at all times in a manner consistent with his obligations as personal representative of Mr. Clancy's estate."
Under the terms of Clancy's will, his estate benefits Alexandra Clancy, the couple's young daughter, and the four adult children of King and Tom Clancy.
If a judge rules in Alexandra Clancy's favor, the proceeds will be divided among those six people. But if the judge denies her request for a declaratory judgment, a seventh person — King — gets a large piece of the pie.
King is president and a 40 percent owner of Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. The remaining 60 percent of the company is owned by the Clancy estate and King's adult children with Clancy. King is also general partner of Jack Ryan Limited Partnership, which is divided in equal portions between her and the Clancy estate.
"Mrs. Clancy is attempting to divest Ms. King of anything that arose in her marriage of Tom Clancy of nearly 30 years," said King's attorney, Sheila Sachs. "Some people are happy to work things out, and some people are greedy."
Sachs also represents King and Clancy's adult children and said that they are siding with their mother in the conflict. In addition, her firm, Gordon Feinblatt LLC, represents Jack Ryan Enterprises Ltd. and Jack Ryan Limited Partnership. Her firm has until late September to file a response to the complaint.
Oliver Herzfeld, an attorney who has written extensively about intellectual property issues involving fictional characters, said that the creator of a work of art typically owns the copyrights to that work and to unique characters unless he or she explicitly assigned those rights to someone else.
"I really don't think it's a character ownership case," Herzfeld said. "It's a contract dispute. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is money."
The defense attorneys claim that Clancy assigned his copyrights to the company and partnership decades before he died.
"The ownership has been uncontested for 30 years," said Gordon Feinblatt's Jerrold Thrope. "There's a long history here of the use and development of the characters that's inconsistent with Alexandra Clancy's contentions."
Brennen of Miles & Stockbridge concurred, writing to The Sun that Webb "believes the copyright to the character 'Jack Ryan' is owned by Jack Ryan Enterprises, Ltd., a conclusion shared by Mr. Clancy's longtime copyright lawyer."
Jack Ryan is no stranger to the court system.
In 1988, the author sought arbitration to wrest control of the Jack Ryan character from his then-publisher, the U.S. Naval Institute, eventually prevailing.
After the divorce, King filed a suit in Calvert County Circuit Court in 2003 attempting to take over management of the lucrative paperback series, "Tom Clancy's Op-Center." After years of litigation, the case was settled out of court.
Though the appetite for Tom Clancy books has never abated, they may soon attract a new set of fans. An eight-episode TV series, "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan" starring John Krasinski — best known for the NBC sitcom "The Office" — in the title role is scheduled to debut on Amazon in 2018.
George Washington University Law School professor Roger Schechter summed up the case succinctly:
"This is a high-profile version of a not unusual [clash of wills] where there's a lot of money at stake and a lot of people who claim that they're entitled to it," he said.
The story was updated to accurately reflect what happened in Wanda King's 2003 case over "Tom Clancy's Op-Center" series and to correct the reference to law professor Schechter.