Marvel (the purveyors of such comic finery as The X-Men
, The X-Force
, Generation X
, The eXiles
, and other titles with and without the letter X) have filed suit against the company NCSoft, the publishers of the MMORPG ("massively multiplayer online role-playing game") City of Heroes
City of Heroes
is a game that allows users (for a nominal monthly fee) to live in the fictional Paragon City and create characters that are superheroes or supervillians.
I don't own City of Heroes
, because I have an addictive personality. I sat down for a beta test of The Sims Online
and didn't get up for 9 hours. I immediately erased all traces of the software from my system, and never connected again. I'm currently beta testing The Matrix Online
and feel like I can only handle one online game at a time, without actually becoming a part of my computer. I'm familiar with it, though, and have read up on it because, let's face it, it's practically the perfect game for me.
I am also not a huge Marvel fan. I grew up reading DC titles, and only got into Marvel, as with many people my age, when they started airing the X-Men
cartoons on Fox. Unlike many kids my age, though, I then started reading back issues to catch myself up on the comic version of the stories. I remained, and still remain, a DC fan that knows a bit about some Marvel titles, but mostly The X-Men
and Generation X
Marvel has decided to sue NCSoft for infringing on their intellectual property rights. They claim that the game copies "numerous Marvel characters." There are three claims of copyright infringement and six of trademark infringement.
The problem, Marvel's saying, is that players can create character that copy Captain America, Spider-man, and The Hulk. And they're suing NCSoft because the company is contributing to the players' copyright infringement (the case law they use, of course, is the Napster
line of cases: P2P software companies were found to have contributed to users infringement of music copyright owners' rights). There are actually some direct infringement claims against NCSoft, but they aren't as interesting.
There's a great article about the suit itself, with some analysis, on Foley & Lardner's
website. (Also, though I couldn't find Marvel's initial complaint, NCSoft's motion to dismiss
is online, in .pdf form, if you're interested.)
I'm curious what DC's opinion is on this. Superman is a copyrighted character, whereas Captain America is not (he's trademarked, and issues of his comic book are copyrighted, but that's it). DC is not suing NCSoft, but I bet you a year's worth of law school tuition that a player could create a character that flies and has heat-vision and looks a lot like the Man of Steel. They could even name him Sooperman or something.
However, you can't copyright an archetype. And after awhile, even characters originally created by a specific author enter the public domain. Except in America, where we can extend copyright until the sun explodes, particularly if we work for a little company named Disney. But I digress.
Comic books haven't done much that's new: they just put a new face to old myths
. (Short plug for Alan Moore's The Watchmen
, one of the greatest comic series ever published. It's got some good stuff about superheroes in there.)
The Flash is a modern day Mercury. Bruce Banner is a reimagined Dr. Jekyll to the Hulk's Mr. Hyde. The Justice League is a super-Knights of the Round Table. Superman is the ultimate, modern Hercules: a demi-god from another planet that strives to protect his adopted home. Captain Marvel doesn't even hide it: S
olomon - H
ercules - A
tlas - Z
eus - A
chilles - M
ercury. (Captain Marvel has an interesting copyright history, actually.)
Anyway, as you can probably tell, I'm not really on Marvel's side here. Is my opinion effected by the fact that Marvel wants to launch its own MMORPG this year? Totally. A real Marvel fan will play Marvel's game and City of Heroes
(if they're even playing City of Heroes
), just like I'll play The Matrix Online
because I love the universe. And someone who loves comics but not Marvel may or may not check it out. Maybe that's what they're worried about. But let's face it: who's playing City of Heroes
but comic book fans?
If Marvel succeeds, where does that leave us? Gamers' creativity will be locked up by intellectual property rights. Companies will be forced to go back to the drawing board with character creation engines, making sure to limit all choices to generic ones or to create their own designs for characters, possibly jacking up prices and grinding MMORPG production to a halt. Marvel will decide to copyright or trademark the letter X. The world will go on, but comic book geeks and gamers, like myself, will weep sadly into their Jolt Cola as they publish their angry blog entries.
[2/9/04]: GameGirlAdvance has a great article about the lawsuit in which the character creation engine of City of Heroes actually ends up making a pretty good case for Marvel. Check it out here