Marvel Mutants Not Human (And What This Has To Do With SOPA)

Editorial by Gene Turnbow

Marvel Comics contemplates its next move...

In 2003, the United States Court of International Trade (a branch of the federal judiciary most of us have never heard of) declared in a judgment in the case of Toy Biz v. United States that many of their action figures were toys, not dolls, and were therefore owed a refund in import tariffs as dolls are taxed at double the rate toys are for some reason.

This happened to include action figures of Marvel Comic’s X-Men and Fantastic Four. To get the court to agree to this, Toy Biz had to convince the court that these characters had properties and qualities that no human being has, and by extrapolation were therefore not legally dolls, but toys.

On January 3, 2003, after examining more than 60 action figures, Judge Judith Barzilay ruled in their favor, granting Toy Biz reimbursement for import taxes on previous toys.

The internet is buzzing with this news this month. So why is this news in 2012 when the whole thing happened nine years ago?

We have a general sense of right and wrong. But in general, collectively, we are only dimly aware of the weird stuff going on around us that can negatively impact our way of life. In 2003, the fact that Marvel would go along with the proposal that their all too human characters were inhuman despite spending decades convincing us of their quintessential humanity despite the powers with which they’d been gifted didn’t have much of an impact other than to outrage a few loyal fans who felt that Marvel had turned its back on its own creations.

This year, however, even the most apolitical of the world of comics fandom is starting to see a pattern in what Marvel has been doing. Of course just last week we reported on the plight of Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich who somehow managed to sign away all his rights to his own creation to the Marvel corporate machine, who properly counter-sued when he illegally used his own creation in the design of a poster.

Okay, yes, more cold corporate equations being applied to real people. He was foolish, and should not have just signed his rights away. Was it really necessary for Marvel not to have tried to take good care of the creative wellsprings from which every scrap of its success ultimately derives? This seems short sighted on their part, at least, and more than a little heartless.

And now there’s SOPA, which to the surprise of many, Marvel supports. As with most major media companies, Marvel subscribes to the myopic belief that they will be able to use SOPA to curb online piracy of their books and movies by removing the domain names of the infringing sites from the name servers that the entire internet uses to attach names to web servers. What they haven’t thought about is how much damage this will do to the Internet as a whole. It would also force internet service providers to police intellectual property rights on their clients’ web sites and to become experts in copyright and trademark law. It’s not a stretch to say that every web server would need a lawyer attached in some way. Then there’s the threat this poses to major services like blogger.com. To do name service blocking like what SOPA and its Senate counterpart PIPA would require would could potentially billion-dollar companies along with every smaller commercial operation or business that depends on these large hosting companies. It sounds melodramatic, but a number of the best minds in the industry believe that a catastrophic result is most certainly on the table should either of these bills pass and be signed into law.

And there Marvel stands supporting this madness, once again blinded to everything but their short term self-interest. They’re not alone, of course. There’s a short list of major supporters of the legislation, including GoDaddy, one of the biggest domain registrars on the planet.

To quote the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

“As drafted, the legislation would grant the government and private parties unprecedented power to interfere with the Internet’s domain name system (DNS). The government would be able to force ISPs and search engines to redirect or dump users’ attempts to reach certain websites’ URLs. In response, third parties will woo average users to alternative servers that offer access to the entire Internet (not just the newly censored U.S. version), which will create new computer security vulnerabilities as the reliability and universality of the DNS evaporates.

It gets worse: Under SOPA’s provisions, service providers (including hosting services) would be under new pressure to monitor and police their users’ activities. While PROTECT-IP targeted sites “dedicated to infringing activities,” SOPA targets websites that simply don’t do enough to track and police infringement (and it is not at all clear what would be enough). And it creates new powers to shut down folks who provide tools to help users get access to the Internet the rest of the world sees (not just the “U.S. authorized version”).

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has placed a hold on the Senate version of the bill, taking a principled stand against a very dangerous bill. But every Senator and Representative should be opposing the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA. Contact your members of Congress today to speak out!”

The point I’m making here is that Marvel has gotten more and more corporate and litigiously minded – possibly because of their having been bought by Disney in 2009, (Disney also supports SOPA, by the way).  By the time anyone starts asking us to sacrifice our freedoms so they can line their pockets, it starts being noticed.

I think that’s why this “Marvel Mutants Declared Inhuman” headline is making such a splash now even though the news itself is nine years old.  People are starting to wake up to smell the napalm, and it’s not a friendly smell at all.

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Links

  • CNN – Disney Buys Marvel for $4 Billion
  • “Controversial Copyright Bills Would Violate First Amendment–Letters to Congress by Laurence Tribe and Me” by Marvin Ammori
  • List of SOPA Supporters
  • “How SOPA Will Destroy Internet Security” by Cory Doctorow
  • “US State Department not for internet freedom” by Trevor Timm
  • “Stop the Internet Blacklist Legislation” by the EFF – learn what you can do to stop this horrific bill from becoming law
  • Keep the Web Open, a site recommended by Congressman Jarid Polis of Colorado
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