Forty years ago, in Southern Maryland, an insurance agent started to write military fiction on his nights and weekends. His first hero would become a franchise empire.

The character with wits and the moral compass of a Boy Scout would journey from a Baltimore prep school to the Marines, beat the stock market to make a fortune, marry the boss’s daughter and outsmart terrorists on his way to the White House. Hollywood’s biggest stars would want to play him.

Today, the brilliant CIA analyst, Jack Ryan, appears in dozens of books (the latest published last month), five movies, an Amazon series and a hit video game franchise.

The author, Tom Clancy, died in Baltimore a decade ago. So, who owns the rights to his signature character?

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The answer comes after a six-year battle in federal court in Baltimore over Clancy’s golden goose. Dueling lawsuits pitted the late author’s widow against his former wife. And the litigation laid bare Clancy’s fortune, from his 535-acre Chesapeake Bay estate to the WWII tank he famously parked out front as a lawn ornament.

Dividing up his toys was the easy part.

Clancy wrote his bestsellers under multiple businesses to reduce taxes and liability, attorneys wrote in court documents. The lucrative rights to the Jack Ryan character were scattered throughout a complex multimillion-dollar corporate structure that teams of lawyers and a federal judge had to untangle. In recent letters to the judge, attorneys for both sides disclosed that they had reached a settlement.

They had to determine who gets paid — Clancy’s estate, widow, ex-wife or grown children? — for permission to use the character in new books, video games and TV shows. Financial analysts put the character rights in the tens of millions of dollars, a fortune tangled up in U.S. copyright law.

“There are certainly characters worth more than Jack Ryan, but this may be the largest that’s in dispute,” said Max Stul Oppenheimer, a University of Baltimore law school professor who studies intellectual property.

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The settlement would also close a chapter on the legacy of the famous Maryland author whose books —17 of which reached the New York Times bestseller list — sold millions of copies worldwide and gave rise to a new genre, the techno-thriller.

“Although Clancy witnessed Jack Ryan leaping from the pages of his books to the big screen, Clancy probably never imagined a non-fictional chapter featuring Jack Ryan in a bitter familial dispute,” U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander wrote early on in the case.

The late Maryland author Tom Clancy, center, with his 1969 college chess club. Courtesy of Loyola University Maryland Archives (Courtesy of Loyola University Ma)

Like his protagonist’s story, Clancy’s begins in a middle-class Baltimore home. His father worked for the Postal Service, his mother for Montgomery Ward. Clancy read hungrily as a boy, played board games of military strategy and attended high school at Loyola Blakefield. He pored over Samuel Eliot Morison’s maritime histories.

Clancy arrived on the campus of what is now Loyola University Maryland in the mid-1960s with a fascination for the armed services and a degenerative vision condition that would lead to his signature dark sunglasses.

“He was very much affected by the fact that his eyesight prevented him from becoming an active member of the military,” said Carol “Sue” Abromaitis, his English professor and, later, friend.

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(Despite a campus legend, Clancy did not fail her class.)

The late Maryland author Tom Clancy, Courtesy of Loyola University Maryland Archives (Courtesy of Loyola University Ma)

An English major, Clancy graduated in 1969 and married a nursing student, Wanda King. He worked for her family’s insurance firm, the O.F. Bowen Agency, in Southern Maryland, where customers included workers at the nearby Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. From them, Clancy learned about nuclear reactors for his stab at a novel. He titled his thriller about a rogue submarine “The Hunt for Red October.”

The success of his first novel would become legend in the publishing industry. The little publishing arm of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis released his book in October 1984, although the institute had never published fiction. Clancy received $5,000. When a copy reached the White House, President Ronald Reagan famously called it either “my kind of yarn” or “the perfect yarn” (the news accounts vary).

Over the next two years, “The Hunt for Red October” sold 300,000 copies in hardcover, 2 million in paperback, and made Clancy half a million dollars, according to a 1986 New York Times article. Clancy sold the movie rights for another $500,000, according to the Times article.

“I was thunderstruck, dumbfounded, bowled over, amazed. But I wasn’t surprised,” Clancy told Publisher’s Weekly, flashing his typical self-confidence.

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The New York firm Putnam signed Clancy to a three-book, $3 million contract. Over the next three decades, he wrote 18 novels. In one adventure after another, Jack Ryan outwits Irish terrorists, the KGB and Colombian drug cartels. In the books, at least, Ryan’s a reluctant action hero — a history professor with a dad bod and fear of flying. He throws up after managing to kill a Russian agent.

In theaters, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck showed the character’s derring-do.

Clancy raked in fabulous wealth. His seventh book brought a $13 million advance — breaking records in the publishing industry, The Wall Street Journal reported. Forbes magazine put Clancy’s earnings around $20 million a year in the early 1990s. Republican leaders wanted him to run for Congress.

Writer Tom Clancy poses for a photograph prior to signing autographs of his new book, "Red Rabbit," on Aug. 10, 2002, at Book Soup in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Robert Mora/Getty Images) (Robert Mora/Getty Images)

The author bought an old summer camp on the Chesapeake Bay and brought to life Jack Ryan’s fictional home of “Peregrine Cliff.” He outfitted the property with a 17,000-square-foot stone mansion and an underground shooting range for his firearms collection (valued at $35,000 after his death). The author dreamed up new adventures for Ryan while writing at a desk of petrified wood.

Clancy split time between the Calvert County compound and his Inner Harbor penthouse at The Ritz-Carlton Residences. That is, when he wasn’t at his getaway on Martha’s Vineyard.

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With his aviator sunglasses and leather jacket, Clancy developed a swagger. He went shooting with Secret Service agents and climbed into the driver’s seat of an Army tank.

“You don’t know what a feeling of power is until you drive a tank,” he told The Washington Post.

In 1999, Clancy and Wanda King divorced after 30 years of marriage. They had four children.

“His first wife, Wanda, is the one who enabled him to become a writer by raising the kids, being a nurse, running a home,” said Abromaitis, the Loyola professor. “Without her, he never could have done it.”

Clancy, 52, remarried six months later. His second wife, Alexandra Llewellyn, was a former TV reporter and daughter of the pioneering Black business executive J. Bruce Llewellyn. They were married 14 years and had one daughter before Clancy died in October 2013 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital after a brief illness. He was 66 years old.

His last Jack Ryan novel, “Command Authority,” published posthumously, debuted No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction.

The courts put the value of his estate at more than $90 million, including his minority stake in the Baltimore Orioles, corporate stocks and military collectibles such as the $250,000 tank on the lawn.

Clancy left his three homes and valuables to his widow, including the pool table, telescopes, watches, jewelry, memorabilia and books appraised at $43,000. She sold Peregrine Cliff three years ago for $4.9 million.

He also left behind three trust funds: one for his wife alone, one for his wife and daughter, and one for the adult children from his first marriage.

Then there’s the character rights to Jack Ryan.

At least five writers continued to publish bestsellers in the “Ryanverse.” There’s the Amazon Prime series starring John Krasinski and Ubisoft’s popular line of Tom Clancy video games. “Rainbow Six Siege” has made Ubisoft more than $1 billion, according to gaming websites that cite financial reports.

Owners of character rights are paid licensing fees and royalties by producers who want to use the characters in new movies, books and games. Josh Beilock works as a financial analyst at CONSOR, a California firm that determines the value of intellectual property rights. He reviewed the earnings of past Jack Ryan movies to estimate that a Hollywood reboot of the series could bring $400 million to $600 million at the box office. A series of five movies over 15 years as often seen with franchises would bring ticket sales exceeding $1 billion, he estimates.

Of course, most of that money repays the movie producers. Royalties vary widely for those who own the character rights, but their share can reach as high as 10%.

People have long fought over the Jack Ryan gold mine. Based on the contract for “The Hunt for Red October,” the U.S. Naval Institute Press claimed rights to the Jack Ryan character in the late 1980s, along with half of Clancy’s earnings on all subsequent books in the “Ryanverse,” according to court records. Clancy’s attorney called the contract a radical departure from industry standards.

The writer eventually bought back the rights for $125,000.

Clancy published his Jack Ryan novels under multiple businesses. He formed Jack Ryan Enterprise Ltd., or JREL, with his first wife in 1985. That enterprise counts as the author of bestsellers such as “Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger” and “The Sum of All Fears.”

In 1992, Clancy started publishing under a new entity, Jack Ryan Limited Partnership or JRLP. When he separated from King, he published under yet another, Rubicon.

Alexandra Clancy sued four years after her husband’s death and asked the U.S. District Court in Baltimore to declare that Tom Clancy’s estate owns the character rights. She and her daughter own the majority stake of the estate; four adult children from his first marriage own the rest. A ruling in her favor would block ex-wife Wanda King from collecting money from the franchise.

“As a divorced wife, Ms. King has no rights in Clancy’s estate. Moreover, he would never have relinquished control over Jack Ryan to her. But as a surviving owner of JREL and partner of JRLP, Ms. King perceives an opportunity to get the best of her former spouse now that death has silenced him,” Alexandra Clancy’s attorney wrote in the pleadings.

Attorneys for the Clancy businesses sued back and asked the judge to affirm that they, not the estate, own the character rights. Under the divorce agreement, Wanda King retains a stake in two of the businesses. A ruling in her favor reduces the franchise money to Alexandra Clancy.

These attorneys argued that Alexandra Clancy was ignoring evidence that Clancy assigned copyrights of his novels to his business — that she was simply spinning a tale.

“While those classic literary devices might have placed Tom Clancy’s novels on the New York Times list of best-seller fiction, they fail to present genuine issues of material fact,” they wrote in the pleadings.

The fight has been closely watched by lawyers and scholars of intellectual property rights. In blog posts and articles, some wrote that they found ambiguity in the old contracts.

“It kind of feels like he intended to assign everything to the entities and the lawyers maybe didn’t do the best job,” said Oliver Herzfeld, an intellectual property rights lawyer at the New York firm Beanstalk.

The sides were headed to trial last year in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, but they halted proceedings to try to hash out a settlement. They landed on a plan to form a new company that holds the character rights, assigning stakes in that company to Clancy’s heirs. There’s just one matter left.

“The parties continue to interview candidates to fill a necessary position of the new company,” Justin A. MacLean, an attorney for the Clancy businesses, wrote the judge on Dec. 14. “This is the final task necessary for the settlement to be finalized and the case dismissed.”

He told the judge that both sides intend to drop their lawsuits by Jan. 31.

MacLean did not return messages last week. Alexandra Clancy’s attorney, Jeffrey Nusinov, sent a statement in response to questions.

“Alex Clancy is pleased that her focus is on maintaining her husband’s immensely popular and lasting legacy, while continuing to deliver the Tom Clancy standard of exceptionalism to the ever-growing fan base. I have no comment regarding the litigation or the reported settlement,” Nusinov wrote.

Meanwhile, the next book — Ryan’s daughter vs. a super-missile Russian submarine — is scheduled for release this spring. Amazon has reportedly started to develop a spinoff series in the “Ryanverse.” And Paramount Pictures is adapting Clancy’s 10th novel for the big screen.

The Jack Ryan empire grows, and there’s more money to be made.

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