Sunday, November 21, 2004

Looking To The Stars: The Marvel/City of Heroes Lawsuit

There comes a time in a writer's life when he can no longer look the other way in regards to the inherit corruptness of that which lies before him. A time when he must, at the risk of loosing whatever image he has of himself, say that which needs to be said. A time when he must write the simple truth for Truth's sake. And if his writings sound like Lewis Black on his 32nd cup of coffee after three days without sleep and being forced to listen to the greatest hits of Olivia Newton John over and over and over again, then so be it.

You see, it's no shock to me the suggestion that Marvel has become obsessed with wringing as much money out of the hands of their fans as possible. They're a business first and foremost. It's what they do. Making money is the ultimate goal behind every decision that they make. So if they think printing three different variant covers for a new book, putting Wolverine in every single book and allowing Rob Liefeld to work for them, so be it. That's perfectly acceptable marketing practice in the comics world. What shouldn't be acceptable, however, is turning on the very same fans who pay your bills as Marvel has done recently regarding the on-line role-playing game, City of Heroes.

As originally told on Comicon's website, Marvel filed a suit against the makers of City of Heroes, claiming that the character creation engine used allows players to create virtual copies of characters owned by Marvel. They say that the game can allow a person to play a super-strong green-skinned giant like The Hulk as well as a mutant with claws and a healing factor like Wolverine.
The announcement of the lawsuit has lead to a whole lot of arguments on message boards over the evil corruptness of Marvel, the rights of copyright holders to protect their property under any circumstance and all manner of childish bickering. Well, as somebody who plays City of Heroes, I feel uniquely qualified to comment upon this. So, as a guy who has been a fan of Marvel Comics for a number of years and an active player on City of Heroes for nearly six months now, let me just address both parties here.

To Marvel Comics,

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FREAKING MINDS? Good Lord, folks! I know you're worried that the big MMORPG you've been trying to get started for years is taking forever. I know that X-Men Legends wasn't nearly as big a success as you'd hoped for and that City of Heroes is probably partly responsible for that as it is a true superhero RPG and not the action-game-with-stats that Legends is and Freedom Force was before it. What you're doing isn't protecting your copyright rights at all and it's just making you look like jerks.

The big problem is this: Yes, the City of Heroes engine is VERY flexible. It does allow you to make giant characters of any skin color. It allows you to make martial artists with healing powers and claws on their wrists. It even allows you to make a guy who can fly and make fire just like The Human Torch. The problem is, you can't sue the guys who make City of Heroes over other people creating something based on your characters for two simple reasons.

1. I'll admit to not being an expert on Copyright law, but I believe the main reason behind it is to prevent one's creative property from being used by others to make a profit. None of the people creating these characters - these Incredible Sulks and Wolferines - are making any money off of what they are doing. You wanna sue somebody, sue the fans. Oh wait: the fans don't have money do they? And suing the fans will make you look like greedy, money-grubbing jerks - like record company executives or the guys who ran Enron.

2. The people who are making money while all this is going on: the guys who run City of Heroes? They have been going out of their way to make sure that this kind of thing DOESN'T happen. It's right there in the terms of service when you sign up for your account as well as EVERY TIME you log into the game. Sections 3e and 3f of the user agreement are quite clear about this point: create a character who has the name and appearance of a copyrighted character or create a supergroup with the name, motto, description or battle cry of an established group and it will be deleted. It is, as that great master of Legalese Willy Wonka said, "clear as crystal." And I know for a fact that that rule gets enforced: I lost two good comrades in arms who played as Arthur and The Tick and actually role-played the parts. We fought for only two sessions when I was level 2 as they were level 3, but what sessions they were!

So please, for your own sake if not my blood pressure, drop the suit. You're looking like idiots and no competent judge is going to believe for a moment that the CoH team has been encouraging people to use your characters. Worse, you're annoying the fans who ARE paying your salaries. I had a good customer drop his entire comics subscription this past Wednesday, because he's an avid City of Heroes player and he'd rather play his own heroes now than read about yours now.

And speaking of the players, now I'd like to address the players who have been making characters based on Marvel characters.

To all the City of Heroes players making characters based on Marvel Comic's characters,

WILL YOU PEOPLE SHOW SOME FREAKING INITIATIVE? Honestly! Here you have this whole new world! A world where you can be nearly any type of hero you want, create billions of different costumes, write your own background and make something truly unique. And what do you do? You make a Defender with force-field making, psychic blasting powers and name her Jane Gray.

Look, I'm the last person in the world to decry the idea of hero-worship. For crying out loud, my nickname comes from my favorite superhero of all time! And I'll cop to admitting to having tried to make a carbon copy of some of my favorite characters in the engine, just to see if I could. But I never played any of those characters. Not for any longer than an afternoon. Because it was all the more satisfying for me to run around the city as a shadow-controlling good guy than for me to be one more Colossus-clone. It was more fun to make a heroine based on my girlfriend and have "High Sierra" saving the city than making a picture-perfect Phoenix.

Thing is, you're doing yourself and the rest of the player's a disservice. If I had a dollar for every good idea for a new take on superheroes I've heard while working in a comic shop, I wouldn't have to work in a comic shop. The most interesting people I've met playing City of Heroes were the ones who put some effort into their characters, wrote up a good backstory for them and those rare few who actually try to role-play in what is meant to be a role-playing game.

So just try something new. If people laugh at your costume, so what? At least you're being original. And more importantly, you're safe from being sued if Marvel DOES decide to go after individual players.

The ranting booth is now closed. Thank you all for playing.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt Website.

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