Thanks to Neal for alerting us to a recent episode of Radiolab, which discusses a real life legal issue involving Marvel characters, including the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man (although the episode focuses on the X-Men).
In brief: Attorneys for a company that imported Marvel character action figures noticed that imported dolls were subject to a higher tax than toys, per the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. More importantly, dolls were distinguished from toys by “representing only human beings and parts and accessories thereof.” The company sued for a declaration that the action figures did not represent human beings and so should be classified as toys, subject to the significantly lower tax. Ultimately the Court of International Trade agreed with the company and held that mutants, the Fantastic Four and related villains, and Spider-Man and related villains were all non-human. Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 248 F.Supp.2d 1234 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2003).
The case actually went on for several years, and some earlier decisions in the case were also reported: Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 123 F.Supp.2d 646 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2000); Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 132 F.Supp.2d 17 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2001); Toy Biz, Inc. v. United States, 219 F.Supp.2d 1289 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2002). The 2001 opinion shows that Toy Biz was not universally successful: a Silver Samurai figure was held to be a doll, for example.
A final note: the Harmonized Tariff Schedule has since been changed to eliminate the distinction between dolls and other toys, which are now in the same category.
Update: Thank to Stephen for alerting us to the related case of Kamar Int’l v. United States, 10 C.I.T. 658 (Ct. Int’l Trade 1986). That case dealt with whether E.T. the Extraterrestrial dolls represented an “animate” object, which would result in a lower tax rate than for toys in general (the customs classifications have changed a lot over the years, apparently). The Court of International Trade agreed with the plaintiff, despite the United States’ arguments that E.T. was a fictional alien and thus not an animate object. The Court cited as precedent the classification of Star Wars toys as toy figures of animate objects because “as depicted in the movie Star Wars they are living beings endowed with animal life.” Kamar, 10 C.I.T. at 661.
The Court’s analysis (and the analysis in the Marvel toy cases) shows that sometimes the courts have to look to the “subjective characteristics of mythical or fictitious characters” in order to classify them properly. It’s almost too bad the distinction between human and non-human toys was abolished, otherwise somebody at Customs could get paid to “research the subjective characteristics of fictitious characters” (aka “read comic books and watch movies”). Sounds like a pretty nice job to me!