Judge Finds Chink in IP Suit Over Iron Man’s Armor

On March 27, 2017, U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken dismissed in part and granted in part Walt Disney’s Marvel Entertainment’s bid to dismiss a copyright suit by Horizon Comics Productions Inc. over Iron Man’s body armor design. The lawsuit commenced in April 2015 by Horizon’s owners Ben and Ray Lai, who claimed Iron Man’s armor was based upon their 2001 comic book series Radix. In addition, the Lai brothers claimed that Marvel’s promotional poster for Iron Man 3 copied a promotional piece of art for the Radix comic. Judge Oetken agreed with Marvel that Iron Man’s armor was full of “dissimilarities” and “differ in respects” from the armor in Horizon’s Radix comics, but denied Marvel’s motion to dismiss in respect to the posters.

Both Horizon’s and Marvel’s promotional posters depict the superheroes in a fighting pose, and the judge found that the pose in posters depicted “scenes à faire,” or characterizations obligatory to the superhero genre, and thus, was not protectable. Although the court did not believe the pose could be protected under copyright law, it did find that there were enough similarities between the posters that it could not find that “no reasonable jury, properly instructed, could find that the two works are substantially similar.” The similarities noted by the court included the haircuts by both characters, the blue lights found in each suit’s design, the notches in the shoulders, and the coloration of the images was somewhat alike.

In 2002, MIT publicly apologized to the Lai brothers after using the heavily armored Radix character in a pitch to the U.S. army to win a $50 million contract to develop nanotechnology and next-generation body armor. The incident drew media coverage from national publications such as the USA Today, and the brothers say they were then hired by Marvel revamp Iron Man’s armor from a “spandex-like attire and minimal armor” to a “fully mechanized suit of body armor.” The brothers also worked for Marvel on comics like The X-Men around 2005.

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