Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reading list: comic law

James Daily & Ryan Davidson, The Law of Superheroes: Based on lawandthemultiverse.com, this breezy book has the benefit of plenty of illustrations, but its presentation of the law is generally devoid of nuance. While it’s not wrong for the sake of drama the way a Law & Order episode or a comic book might be, it’s probably a much better read for nonlawyers. It starts with two statements of note from an IP perspective, for two different reasons. First, there’s
So why comic books? Well, for one thing, they’re both interesting and popular. The main problem with a lot of legal educational materials is that they are boring…. So rather than making up people who may not even have names, or using cases involving people you’ve never heard of, The Law of Superheroes uses characters you already know and love.
To a copyright lawyer, that sounds intriguingly like a description of using another’s work simply to avoid the drudgery of working up something fresh, or simply to get attention—something that would in theory count against the book in a fair use analysis, even though the book is obviously fair use. You can use someone else’s work to get attention under many circumstances, including when you want to teach them law.

The authors immediately follow with the preposterous statement that “[t]he terms ‘superhero’ and ‘supervillain’ are trademarks co-owned by Marvel Characters, Inc. and DC Comics, Inc. These terms are used throughout this book solely to refer descriptively to Marvel and DC characters.” I don’t presume to know whether Marvel & DC asked for this ridiculous disclaimer in return for agreeing not to contest the extensive and helpful (and fair use!) images in the book, but, just to be clear: (1) superhero and supervillain are generic terms, not trademarks (ETA: yes, I know there's a registration; that just makes Marvel & DC aggressive and well-funded, not trademark owners); (2) even if they weren’t generic, the owner (since a trademark must have an owner, not two who don’t control each other’s behavior) would not have any claim against a book that used a term “wrongly.”

But at least this is a good indication of what you’re going to get: some entertaining/shallow discussion of various legal dilemmas in which comics characters might find themselves. I did like the discussion of masked superheroes testifying in court, and the point that DC has solved this problem with a constitutional amendment allowing “registered meta-humans” to testify masked, which then means that DC has already put in place the very provision that in the Marvelverse sparked Civil War: “while the DC workaround would be effective in the courts, it does not seem as if that universe has fully dealt with the implications of that solution.” Heh.

Unfortunately, while sensitive to the First Amendment implications of anti-mask laws, the authors badly mishandle the idea of newsworthiness when it comes to invasion of privacy, claiming that Peter Parker would have a cause of action against someone who revealed that he was Spiderman because Peter Parker “is just a working stiff, a news photographer and, perhaps most importantly, is often written as a minor. The public probably doesn’t have as much of an interest in knowing these details.” Um, no. Dude is Spiderman. That his secret identity seems like an ordinary Joe is no more relevant to whether the Spiderman-Peter Parker link is newsworthy than the ordinariness of the contents of Anthony Weiner’s boxer-briefs is relevant to the newsworthiness of the fact that a Congressman was sending pictures of his erection around. So, as the authors suggest, don’t take the book as offering legal advice--but it's an interesting entry into the category "what people think the law is."

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