As Avatar director James Cameron and Fox can tell you, copyright infringement lawsuits can fly fast and furious around blockbusters. How far they get in the courts is often a mixed result of the statute of limitations; proximity; if the asserted similarities are unique, benign or generic; and financial resources for lawyers. In the case of a potentially multibillion-dollar complaint filed this week by Horizon Comics against Marvel and Disney over the Iron Man movies, a look at the comic books as well as the law books might be in order. In their April 23 complaint, Horizon owners Ben and Ray Lai claim that the media giant ripped off Iron Man’s armor for the Robert Downey Jr-starring pics from the Radix comics they created starting back in 2001.
“Marvel’s Iron Man comic book character first appeared in 1963,” says the copyright infringement and unfair and deceptive business practices filing of April 23 in federal court in Massachusetts (read it here). “From that time until the first movie in the franchise was released, the comic typically depicted Iron Man wearing simple spandex-like attire and minimal armor,” adds the jury-seeking compliant of 2008’s Iron Man and its mega-successful 2010 and 2013 sequels and the other box office-bursting Marvel franchises Tony Stark is in. “In contrast, the Films depict Iron Man wearing a fully mechanized suit of body armor.”
The two want unspecified damages that include “profits attributable to the infringement.” Being that the three Iron Man films have made nearly $2.5 billion worldwide, 2012’s The Avengers made over $1.5 billion and the coincidentally soon-to-be-released Avengers: Age Of Ultron is expected to clean up too, we’re talking serious cash. In fact, the Lai brothers’ lawyers say Horizon previously sent Marvel a cease-and-desist letter claiming the poster for IM3 two years back looked a lot like one of their Radix images – but Marvel ignored them. As seen here, the complaint shows the two images side by side, and they do look similar in pose at the very least.
But here’s the thing – not only is the statute of limitations on complaints like this 3-years from the initial infringement (AKA 2008 it seems not 2013) but the description of Iron Man’s outfit in the filing isn’t exactly in line with comic book history. The Stan Lee co-created Iron Man first hit comic stands in March 1963 covered head to toe in a gray full body armor made of iron. That heavy look was something that appeared in the first Iron Man movie too. So, so much for “simple spandex-like attire and minimal armor,” as the lawsuit says the Armored Avengers outfit was in the early years. That first suit changed to all gold and then in December 1963 to the a more streamlined and light-weight gold and red. However, except for some storylines with a teenaged Stark from an alternative reality, it was and remains all armor – though with different alloys, weapons and technology. Current copyright law allows for claims on a pre-existing work such as Iron Man if alterations to it can be clearly identified. However, in this case, variations and modifications to Tony Stark’s fictional handiwork aside by various Marvel artists over the decades aside, that full metal look and fully operational suit from the early-1960s is the one we basically know today in the comics and on-screen, chestplate and all – long before Radix came along.
Yet the 11-page filing of Thursday insists otherwise.
“It was not until after the Lai brothers’ submitted their work in Radix to Marvel that Marvel began depicting Iron Man wearing the Suits,” says Horizon’s complaint. “The Suits are substantially similar to the armor depicted in the Radix Materials years earlier. Neither the Lai brothers nor Plaintiff authorized any of the Defendants to exploit the Radix Materials in these or any other ways.”
What makes this all the odder is that, after receiving a lot of media attention for a dust up with MIT, the Lai brothers actually worked for Marvel for a short stint back in the early 2000s. They illustrated several comic series for the company like Thor and The X-Men – no Iron Man though.
Jeffrey Wiesner of Boston’s Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin LLP and Paul S. Sennott of the city’s Sennott & Williams, LLP are representing Horizon Comics Productions in the case.