A View from Atlas Park: Make Mine Marvel (And Get Sued For It)

I’m sure you’ve seen the press release or at least heard about it on the forums by now – Marvel Comics is suing Cryptic Studios for letting heroes that look like Marvel characters run around in Paragon City. This has lead to a lot of emotion-filled rants (usually denouncing Marvel) and armchair lawyers appearing, with everyone having an opinion. Pixelshock has already written about it, so I am a little behind the game on this topic.

However, from my perspective the facts are:


    There are heroes that look like Marvel characters (and DC characters, and other comic book publishers’ characters, and cartoon characters, and representations of pop culture, etc) on the CoH servers.

    It is in Marvel’s best interest to protect their intellectual property (IP), which are their characters.

    Cryptic have known that this issue would one day raise its head, despite never issuing any formal comment on it – it was widely discussed for years on the CoH forums prior to the game’s release.

I know there are players out there who copy existing designs for their characters because I’ve seen them (and anyone who’s spent time in Paragon City surely has too). The most often copied character I’ve run into is War Machine, with about six different versions (and differently punctuated names) running around at one time or another on the Virtue server. I’ve also seen versions of Aquaman, the Hulk, the Thing, He Man, Paris Hilton, Papa Smurf and Popeye, plus many others I can’t remember off the top of my head. And these are just those who have named themselves directly after these characters (Paris Hilton being a CGI media creation, obviously). I’ve also seen a Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) and an erik magnus (aka Magneto, who’s full name is Erik Magnus Lensherr), plus others that fit in the category of indirect, but still obvious, copies of existing characters.

Cryptic have done someways into removing these copies, but they are fighting a rising tide. Everytime they add to the character creation system, they provide more opportunities for players to duplicate existing characters. Player numbers are also reportedly rising, so more options + more players = more clones of existing characters. I’m not saying that every new player will create a copied character, but there will also be those players who fill every character slot they have with duplicates too.

Putting aside Marvel’s own mmog-in-development as a reason for suing, it is in Marvel’s best interest to stop Cryptic from letting this duplication get too out of hand. Marvel’s greatest asset is its IP – in short, the representations of Spiderman, Professor X, Electra et al (ie what they look like). If it is perceived that Marvel doesn’t care what happens to their IP, the courts could decide they lose the exclusive rights to it. If that happened, the millions of dollars that Marvel gets from merchandising off the rights to (for example) Spiderman lunchboxes disappears. It doesn’t make business sense to risk that happening, so suing Cryptic is an obvious step to take.

But face it – Cryptic have known for years that getting sued by someone over IP issues was a good possibility. It was discussed on the forums for years – I joined up early October 2001, and one of the first threads I was involved in talked about how likely players would be to create existing characters in-game. This issue has been recycled many, many times. For Cryptic to be suprised by Marvel’s legal action, they would have to be naive and / or stupid, and I doubt they are either. I’m sure that Cryptic has had a lot of legal investigation into what they can allow within CoH and what they can do to counter any legal actions against them.

It will be interesting to see what the eventuality of Marvel v Cryptic comes to. In my complete-I-have-no-legal-qualifications-layman’s opinion, Cryptic are going to have a hard time proving that they are not responsible for what goes on within the CoH servers. In the end, I expect Marvel to not be completely successful in their action, but I also think that it will make Cryptic a bit more vigilant in policing the large number of clones that run around Paragon City. Marvel can’t claim that every single representation of all their characters should be protected from duplication, but at the same time it will be hard for Cryptic to prove that they are doing enough to stop IP rights from begin violated by players. If both companies are smart, this will get settled out of court, and clones should be expecting a purge to start any day now.

I’d suggest that if you want to help Cryptic fight this battle, rather than boycotting Marvel comics (although you can do that if you want – buy Wildstorm comics instead), report characters that obviously violate IP rights. (It’s alright – the devs want you to snitch.) Send a petition when you see an inappropriate character, or one who is obviously a copy of someone else’s IP. Let customer service sort it out with the player. This will cut down on the amount of resources Cryptic has to spend chasing down clones and fighting off legal action, which leaves more for the improvement of CoH as a game. Which is what us players want, right?

– UnSub [email protected] 22 November 2004

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