Targeting Toolmakers

Marvel Comics jumps the shark.

Marvel Comics just announced they’re suing Cryptic Studios, Inc. and NCsoft Corporation, the makers of the game City of Heroes. For those of you out of the loop, City of Heroes is an online role playing game that allows you to play as superheroes complete with superpowers and costumes befitting their super-ness. You can then take your newly created super hero along with thousands of other players and kick thug and villain butt in Paragon City for about $15 a month.

So why is Marvel suing them? City of Heroes comes with a well designed character creation system that lets you tweak nearly every aspect of your superhero — size, colors, uniforms, you name it and you can change it. Of course, this means that you can conceivably make a character that looked like an existing comic book hero, say The Hulk, give him powers just like The Hulk, and call him The Hulk, then let him loose on the virtual streets of Paragon City.

City of Heroes is a pastiche of every superhero thing the makers thought they could put into a video game. If there’s anything Marvel can rightfully be unhappy about, it would be people using their character names (for which they do have valid trademarks) in game. They’ve invested lots of time and money in Wolverine, and if a CoH character tried to play Wolverine like the comic book Wolverine, I would hope other players kick his butt for not being original using the superhero creation kit and absolutely give him the smackdown if he deviates even the slighest from character. However, I wouldn’t have an issue with a CoH character Wolverfellow that was a lot like Wolverine, that everyone knew was based on Wolverine, but that everyone knew wasn’t Wolverine but merely an homage to the character. For you CoH players, how many other players have you seen that look a lot like existing Marvel or other comic book characters? In general, how many comic book super heroes have you seen that have similar powers or seem almost exactly alike?

With respect to designing characters like ones that already exist, I say there’s a limited set of superpowers (ice, fire, energy, telekinesis, etc.) and so characters will repeat or at least seem a lot alike after the 10,001st one is created. Super strength and flying are common among superpowers, but that doesn’t mean that every superstrong flying character is modeled after Superman. And yes, DC Comics did sue Marvel in the 1940’s over the character Captain Marvel because his powers were too much like Superman’s. I’m certain that since then Marvel and DC have made other characters that were very similar but decided a lawsuit wasn’t worth the effort.

(An aside: Marvel and DC already claim they own the trademark “super heroes,” but I don’t know if that will hold up much longer. A quick search of the City of Heroes website turned up many references to the term “super heroes” but only on the user forums and in review quotes — none made by the game producers. You gotta wonder if they’re trying to avoid the term altogether so they won’t get sued.)

I guess this means that Pixar is Marvel’s next target. The powers of the characters in that movie resemble those of the Fantastic Four (no spoilers — Elastic Girl = Mr. Fantastic, their daughter Violet = Invisible Woman, and Mr. Incredible = The Thing) so Marvel should sue the shit out them, right? Those characters and the other references like the X-Men movie and characters, and, well, I don’t want to ruin the references, but there are many they’re all homages, not bait for infringement lawsuits.

But my greatest worry is that this is the tip of an iceberg of intellectual property lawsuits. Should Izzy Stradlin be able to sue Fender Guitars for making instruments that other people can use to learn and imitate his riffs? Maybe the makers of City of Heroes can sue Microsoft for making tools that let other people make games like City of Heroes. Or anyone can sue makers of CAD software because you can design nearly anything with those tools.

They’re blaming the toolmakers, not themselves. We can’t have a system where we always point the finger at the toolmakers when the blame lies with the tool users. This doesn’t absolve the toolmakers entirely — they still have to act responsibly and reasonably when issues like this come up. So for everyone from Google to gun manufacturers, peer-to-peer application and video game makers, we need to distinguish between people who make tools, people who use tools, and the tools themselves. Analyze the situation and blame the dumbasses appropriately.

Marvel is the dumbass in this affair, not the toolmaker or tool users. Marvel was dying until their movies resurrected them (check how their stock rebounded after the X-Men movie was released in 2000). Get a clue Marvel. Be happy with the royalties you’re getting from the movies and leave it at that. If anything, you can get some accounts in City of Heroes to steal new character ideas from existing characters in the game. And then the game users can sue you for improperly appropriating their creations. We all know you haven’t created any good characters since the new X-Men in 1975 and you ostracized all your good artists in the 90’s who reacted by ditching your lame ass company. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Just for that, I’m not going to pay to see the next Marvel character based movie. Then again, I didn’t pay to see Daredevil, Punisher, and Hulk either, but they all sucked ass, so maybe Marvel’s problems run deeper than just a video game.

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