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Iron Man's Biggest Battle Just Might be Copyright Law

Never mind the nefarious Ultron - Iron Man's biggest nemesis at the moment just might show up in the form of copyright law. Even as the latest in the Avengers film franchise, Avengers: Age of Ultron, powers up the box office to the tune of more than $217.6 million in its first week in theaters, makers Marvel and Disney are being hit with a copyright infringement case.

At issue is character Iron Man's beefed up, tech-heavy suit, which has come a long way from its 1963 genesis. Comics giant Stan Lee's original Iron Man was clad in spandex and minimal armor. But in the Iron Man and Avengers films that debuted in 2008, the super hero suit donned by character Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is decidedly more technologically advanced.

Brothers and comic book artists Ben and Ray Lai, founders of Horizon Comics and one-time Marvel artists who filed the legal complaint, say the dramatic transformation comes by way of Marvel's swiping the design of suits featured in their own independently created, apocalyptic-themed comic series, Radix.

According to court documents, shortly after the Radix was released, the Lai brothers submitted their work to Marvel and subsequently were hired by the company in 2002 to work on Marvel's X-Men and Thor, as well as Hasbro's G.I. Joe characters. At the time, the brothers were fresh off a case against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, over the school's use of an illustration substantially similar to a Radix image in an application for a $50 million nanotechnology research grant from the US Army. The grant was to cover costs of development of a new generation of body armor for soldiers. MIT won the grant, but also received a bit of a legal and public relations black eye. After the Lai brothers complained, MIT officials issued a highly publicized apology. The Marvel offer came less than a month later.

"The timing and negotiations leading to the Lai brothers' hiring confirmed that the Lai brothers' artistic work on Radix was a key reason for their employment," the complaint says.

Surely flattered at the time, the Lai brothers today are calling foul, alleging that Marvel subsequently swiped their Radix suit designs for use in the Iron Man and Avengers films. No longer the spandex-like, minimally-armored suit that Iron Man donned since 1963, the new suits worn since the film franchise's 2008 debut are highly mechanized and far too similar to those in the Radix series.

Plaintiffs face two hurdles in the case. First, to prove successful, they'll need to demonstrate that the Iron Man and Radix suits are actually substantially similar, and not just generic armored suits common to fantasy and science fiction production and publications. Plus, they're likely to have trouble with the statute of limitations, which requires that copyright infringement cases be filed within three years from the date of the alleged infringement. It's been seven years since the first Iron Man film hit theatres.

The outcome of the case could impact other comic book and character creators. You can be sure we'll keep an eye on the case as it progresses. Meanwhile, if you believe that your comics work is being infringed upon, contact Daniel Law Offices in Orlando and Tampa at 866-37PATENT. 

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