Co-authored by Ms. Divya Srinivasan, LexOrbis Associate and Ms. Indrani Das, Final Year, LLB, Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi.
Comic fiction has always been popular with people across various generations and ages. Disney and its subsidiary Marvel, Warner Bros. and its subsidiary DC Comics, amongst others, have brought out the real heroes, protagonists and action sequences alive from the comic books and fiction books’ pages. Along with it intellectual property rights, particularly trademark and copyright infringement litigations, have emerged as well making headlines.
Recently, the popular ‘Iron Man’ was also in news when the owners of Horizon Comics Productions filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in a federal court in Massachusetts in April 2015. They claimed in the lawsuit that the ‘Iron Man’ suit featured in the movies produced by Marvel Entertainment, infringed their comic book series Radix.[i] The lawsuit contained allegations with respect to copyright infringement and unfair business practices and further claimed that the original Marvel comic books “typically depicted Iron Man wearing simple spandex-like attire and minimal armor”, while the later films depict him “wearing a fully mechanized suit of body armor”. They added that the “Iron Man suits are substantially similar to the Radix super hero because they allow him to fly, shoot projectiles and perform superhuman feats”. Furthermore Horizon had even sent a cease-and-desist letter to Marvel in April 2015, claiming the poster for the third movie instalment in the Iron Man series released in 2013, resembled one of their Radix images. However, Marvel chose to ignore them, as alleged by them.
The federal judge opined that the lawsuit per se did not establish a prima facie copyright infringement case, as the suits were being made way before Radix was even created. While it is pertinent to note that under the Copyright laws of the United States, Federal Courts have exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over copyright infringement cases, which imply that an infringement case may not be brought in state courts. The Copyright Office handles copyright registrations, but it does not adjudicate copyright infringement disputes.
The idea of having any character wear an interactive body armor that fights and wards of crime is not protectable under copyright. What is accorded protection is the overall look and details of drawing and artistic design that make up the suit. The armor featured in the Iron Man series is not that dissimilar from the earlier suits featured in the comics dating back to as long as 1963. The upgrades and changes made overtime to the suits appearing in the movies would come under the purview of derivative works of the original copyright. All the Iron Man suits are protected under copyright as well and predate Marvel’s comic.
Ironically, the present case did not reach its merits on the basis of the allegations made in the complaint. The court held that it lacked jurisdiction to haul Marvel into the Massachusetts court. It further held that the relevant witnesses and documents in the present matter are in New York and not in Massachusetts.
While this is not the end of the road for Horizon Comics, they can refile the suit in the appropriate jurisdiction (e.g. New York), if they wish to. The sequel to this much celebrated lawsuit is awaited by Iron Man fans and Radix fans alike with bated breaths.
[i] Radix was created by the owners of Horizon Comics Productions (Lai brothers) in 2001and the characters in the comics wear “highly detailed, mechanized suits of body armor”.