Category Archives: criminal law

She-Hulk v. Paparazzi

Today’s post was inspired by a question from the enigmatically-named Master182000, who recently reminded me that I hadn’t gotten around to it.  The question points to a 1985 John Byrne-era She-Hulk story (in Fantastic Four #275) in which She-Hulk is photographed while sunbathing on the roof of a tall building (maybe the Baxter Building).  The paparazzi used a helicopter to take the photos, the propellor wash of which blew away the towel she was covering herself with.  As Master18200 summarizes:

Later that day [She-Hulk] (in alter-ego form) and her friend track down the chopper, intimidate the pilot, and confront the photographer, who owns a tabloid called “The Naked Truth”. She confronts him, telling him since She-Hulk is a member of the SAG [as well as other show business unions] and images of her require her release before going to print. The photographer balks, claiming that She-Hulk is a ‘public figure’ and thus images of her are in the public domain and thusly don’t require She-Hulk’s release to print. He carries this argument forward until She-Hulk appears and crunches the photographer’s safe.

This led to the following questions:

1) Which party’s interpretation of the law is more accurate?
2) At what level of celebrity does a person lose 100% of their ‘media rights’ or become ‘public domain’ as the photographer suggests? Is this issue a settled matter at Federal law level or State law level?
3) Aren’t there issues with the way the pictures were taken? I don’t know much about aviation laws, but that chopper was pretty close to the building, close enough for She-Hulk’s clothes and stuff to be blown around.

I’ll take them one at a time.

I. So Who’s Right?

Well, technically neither of them.  There’s nothing special about being a member of SAG that would grant someone more rights than usual with regard to their image, unless SAG has negotiated an agreement with the other party (e.g. a movie studio).  Presumably the tabloid has no agreement with SAG or any other union.

On the other hand, public figures can still have an expectation of privacy, and the roof of a 30 story building, while somewhat exposed, is still a place where most people would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Furthermore, She-Hulk was covered up initially and only became exposed because of the close approach of the helicopter, which was intentionally done to blow away her towel.  The First Amendment wouldn’t protect that kind of action.

So She-Hulk is right in that the photographs can’t be published, but not for the reason she offers.

II. Public Figures, Invasion of Privacy, and the Right of Publicity

The notion of a person being a “public figure” mostly has to do with slander and libel, the standard for which for statements about a public figure is higher than for statements made about ordinary people.  Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967).  As Chief Justice Warren described it in his concurrence, public figures are those who are “intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large.”  Curtis Publishing, 388 U.S. at 164.  As between federal and state law, this is a federal First Amendment issue.

Is She-Hulk a public figure?  Maybe.  It’s hard to get a sense of just how famous any particular comic book character is within their own universe (with a few exceptions such as Superman).  But even if she were, that would only matter for purposes of libel and slander.  And as the sleazy tabloid owner said, the pictures are accurate depictions of what happened, so truth might well be a defense to any libel or slander claim anyway.

But that’s not the claim She-Hulk should be bringing.  What she should be claiming is invasion of privacy (which, when it involves nudity, is a crime in many states) and violation of her right of publicity.  These would be state law claims.  All of this would be sufficient to claim significant damages if not prevent publication of the photos outright (although the courts are pretty loathe to engage in censorship).

III. Aviation Laws

Nowadays the regulations regarding helicopter flights in and around Manhattan are fairly strict.  There are no-flight corridors, weekend bans, and other rules.  But these are mostly new developments, often in response to noise concerns.  Thirty years ago things were a little more free-wheeling, as far as I can tell, and private helicopters may well have been free to more or less buzz buildings.  Of course, had been an accident it would likely have been very easy to establish the tabloid’s negligence or recklessness.

IV. Conclusion

In the US the paparazzi can get away with a lot because of the stringent protections of the First Amendment.  But (perhaps unsurprisingly) ambushing someone with a helicopter in a private space and forcibly removing their clothing is beyond the pale.  She-Hulk (as attorney Jennifer Walters) could probably have succeeded in court where She-Hulk (as She-Hulk) failed using traditional Hulk methods.  In the end, the pictures were published anyway, but the developer messed up the skin color so that the pictures didn’t look like She-Hulk.  A court case might have meant a more satisfying result.  At the very least the damages award (and possible criminal sanctions) might have driven the tabloid out of business.

The Wolverine: Grand Theft Superpower

When I saw The Wolverine I was reminded of this post on “Superpowers as Personal Property,” which considers the idea of treating “stealing” superpowers as theft.  If you’ve seen The Wolverine you probably know where I’m coming from.  If you haven’t, read on but beware: major spoilers follow.

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Batman: Court of Owls

Batman: The Court of Owls is the first few issues of Batman in the New 52. It concerns a shadowy conspiracy referenced in a child’s nursery rhyme apparently common knowledge in Gotham City. The story itself does have a few things to discuss, but this time we’re going to talk about shadowy conspiracies generally. How realistic is it, legally speaking, for a group of people trying to control Gotham City (or the world for that matter) to pull off something like this? Continue reading

“Holy Secret Recipe, Batman!”: Superheroes, the Misappropriation of Trade Secrets, and Economic Espionage

(This guest post was written by T. Stephen Jenkins, an associate in the Commercial Litigation Practice Group of Pepper Hamilton LLP.)

While Law and the Multiverse has featured several posts on various forms of intellectual property law (e.g. patent, copyright, and trademark), it has yet to discuss trade secrets . . . until now.  Trade secrets commonly appear in comic books, and given the recent concern with computer security and the alleged theft of trade secrets by domestic and international hackers, theft of trade secrets is a worthwhile topic to discuss.  (Warning:  minor spoilers ahead)

 

I. What IS a Trade Secret?

A person or company holding a trade secret, as its name suggests, seeks to safeguard information that is known by the person or company that is not readily known by anyone in the public.  Trade secrets can overlap with other forms of intellectual property, such as non-patentable inventions, trade dress, and “know-how.”  However, unlike many other forms of intellectual property where recovery of damages might be limited by lack of federal registration (disclosure) of the intellectual property (e.g. copyrights and patents), generally speaking, a trade secret holder may be able to recover damages if he or she maintained a reasonable level of protection to prevent non-disclosure of the trade secret.  The Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”), which 48 of 50 states have adopted (or introduced) in some form, defines a trade secret as

(1) information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process, that (2) derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use, and (3) is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.

Uniform Trade Secrets Act §1, ¶ 4.

Trade secrets are common—and even famous—in the real world.  One of the most famous examples is the Coca-Cola secret recipe, which, for years has been guarded and has been the subject of threats of economic espionage.  Other examples of famous trade secrets include KFC’s “11 herbs and spices” and Google’s search algorithm.  Even less apparent examples of trade secrets have gained fame including the methodology for creating the New York Times Best Sellers’ list and Starwood Hotels’ (the owner of Westin hotel chain) luxury ambience.  Each of the above satisfies the three elements of the UTSA definition of a trade secret.

First, each example easily satisfies the information prong.  See  1-1 Milgrim on Trade Secrets § 1.01 (“The classic definition of trade secrets is stated at § 757, comment b, of the 1939 Restatement of Torts. . . . It covers any information (which can be embodied in a physical thing . . .”).  Second, because some have attempted to either unlawfully misappropriate and/or reverse-engineer the above trade secrets, it is probably safe to assume each trade secret has independent economic value in not being generally known.  Third, all are highly protected (though safeguarding all the details that create a Starwood Hotel’s luxury ambience is undoubtedly challenging).

Given the broad definition of a trade secret under UTSA, one can see how patterns, formulas, or devices in the Multiverse likely qualify as trade secrets.  The challenge is demonstrating whether these secrets have economic value.

The most famous comic book trade secret may be the Super Soldier Serum that created Captain America (and other characters), which many have tried to misappropriate (e.g. the Red Skull) and reverse engineer (e.g. the Green Goblin).  Though the Super Solider Serum was the product of government military research, there is a strong case that is has economic value.  Many villains and fictional enemies of the United States have tried to misappropriate the secret formula and use it either to gain a military advantage or to create a steady supply of mercenaries for hire.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the Super Soldier Serum could meet the trade secret requirements.

Other examples might include:

  • Devices:  Spider-Man’s webshooters and Batman’s gadgets;
  • Programs/Patterns:  X-men Danger Room (depending on whether or not it is sentient) and Cerebro/Cerebra;
  • Methods/Techniques/Processes:  The method to access the Speed Force and the process of joining adamantium to Wolverine’s skeleton;
  • Formula: Vibranium and its derivative uses including Captain America’s shield, the Super Solider Serum, and the Anti-Life Equation;
  • Information/Compilations:  S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database on superheroes and villains and Justice League’s/X-Men’s/Avengers team-up database.

A superhero’s secret identity (within the Multiverse) may also be a trade secret, though not as easily established as the above.  See the Law and the Multiverse’s post on secret identities and privacy for an analogous argument.  For public superheroes such as those registered under the Marvel Universe’s Superhuman Registration Act, their secret identities may not enjoy trade secret protection.  However, other superheroes have had to protect their secret identities against those trying to kill them or sell their secret (e.g. Spider-Man).  They have also obtained benefits in their non-superhero professions from keeping their superhero identities secret (e.g. Peter Parker (photographer) / Spider-Man, Clark Kent (journalist) / Superman, and Matt Murdock (attorney) / Daredevil)).  Thus, for these superheroes, a secret identify might qualify as a trade secret.

 

II. What Laws Protect Trade Secrets?

In contrast to patents, copyrights, and trademarks, which federal law either establishes and/or strongly protects, trade secrets’ protection mostly arises from state law, though recently, international and federal protection of trade secrets has increased.  Most states have adopted UTSA in some form, which provides for civil actions for injunctive relief and damages within three years after misappropriation is discovered.  Two U.S.-signed treaties, the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS”) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”) also provide some protection.

Recently, the federal Economic Espionage Act (“EEA”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1831 et seq.,  and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”), 18 U.S.C. § 1030 et seq., have become enforcement tools against criminal misfeasors.  Both the EEA and the CFAA provide harsh civil and criminal penalties for the trade secret theft. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1831 et seq. (providing for fines up to $10 million and/or 15 years imprisonment for economic espionage or trade secret theft); 18 U.S.C. § 1030 et seq. providing for unspecified fines and/or up  to 20 years imprisonment).

 

III. Who in the Multiverse Has Violated the EEA or the CFAA?

Though there are several examples of potential violations of the EEA and the CFAA in the Multiverse, a favorite comes from Marvel Entertainment’s popular Iron Man “Armor Wars” storyline (for a DC Comics example, see the mini-series aptly named The Hacker Files).

 

A. The Facts

“Armor Wars” is an Iron Man story arc that has appeared in many of Marvel’s comic book series.  In addition, it was featured in the second season of the Iron Man:  Armored Adventures televised cartoon.  In the Iron Man:  Armored Adventures version, Tony Stark is a teenager balancing being a superhero and a high school student.  Tony’s main antagonist is Obadiah Stane, who ousted Tony from the family company Stark International.

Stane, then Chair of the Board of Stark International, enlists Ghost to steal the Iron Man armor specifications.  Ghost goes to Tony’s hideout to steal the specs from Tony’s computer.  Stane also makes a deal with Doctor Doom, handing over the armor specs to Dr. Doom in exchange for help with creating a version of the armor for Stane.  Using Tony’s armor specs, Stane creates his own version of the Iron Man armor, becoming Iron Monger but is exposed as being involved with Ghost.  Ghost also sells the Iron Man armor specs to Justin Hammer (in this version a 21-year old spoiled rich kid), who creates his own version of the Iron Man armor, becoming Titanium Man.

 

B. Is There a Cause of Action Under the EEA or the CFAA?

While the cartoon takes a different approach to resolve the problem, consider whether a prosecutor or Tony could bring a claim under the EEA or the CFAA against (1) Ghost, (2) Stane, (3) Dr. Doom, and (4) Hammer (collectively, the “Misfeasors”).

 

1. Economic Espionage Act

Under the EEA, a prosecutor or Tony could bring claims of both theft of trade secrets (42 U.S.C. § 1832) and economic espionage (42 U.S.C.§ 1831).  The EEA makes it unlawful for a person to steal a trade secret and transmit it to a person who knows he or she is not authorized to possess it.  The EEA also makes it unlawful for a person to steal a trade secret with the purpose or knowledge that the delivery of the trade secret will benefit a foreign government (economic espionage).

The Misfeasors are all potentially liable for theft of trade secrets.  The EEA provides that “[w]hoever, with intent to convert a trade secret . . . steals, or without authorization,” or “appropriates . . . information” or “receives, buys, or possesses such information” or “attempts . . . or conspires . . . to commit any offense” described above shall be subjected to fines and/or imprisonment.  First, the Iron Man armor specs, at least in this storyline, are trade secrets  because they meet all the requirements under UTSA (see above Captain America/Super Soldier Serum analysis).  Moreover, the reason Stane and Hammer pay Ghost to steal the specs is because they want to derive economic value.  Second, the Misfeasors were involved in a conspiracy to misappropriate the specs:  Ghost stole the specs; Stane and Hammer bought the stolen specs, and Dr. Doom received the stolen specs.

However, not all of the Misfeasors are clearly liable for economic espionage under the EEA.  The EEA’s economic espionage provision is conceptually the same as its theft of trade secret provision, but requires that a misfeasor transmit a trade secret “intending or knowing that the offense will benefit” a foreign government or agent.  Here, the foreign government or agent is Latveria or Dr. Doom, respectively.

Hammer is likely not liable for economic espionage because it would be difficult to prove that he intended or knew that Dr. Doom would gain the armor specs.  In contrast, Stane and Dr. Doom are likely liable because they conspired for Dr. Doom to obtain the specs.  But the trickier case is Ghost who was happy to sell the specs to highest bidder.  Because it was Stane and not Ghost who gave the specs to Dr. Doom, Ghost can argue that he did not intend or know that his theft would benefit Dr. Doom.  However, given that “a conspiracy can exist even if each participant does not know the identity of the others or does not participate in all the events,” cf. United States v. Monroe, 73 F.3d 129, 131 (7th Cir. 1995) (internal citations omitted), Ghost’s argument may fail.

 

2. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Misfeasors are also likely liable under the CFAA, which provides that “[w]hoever . . . knowingly accessed a computer without authorization or exceeding authorization . . . obtain[s] information that has been determined by [U.S. law] to require protection against unauthorized disclosure . . . [and] transmits . . . or conspires [to transmit]. . . to any person not entitled to receive it” will be subject to fines and/or imprisonment.  18 U.S.C. § 1030 (a)–(c).  The analysis under the CFAA is similar to the theft of trade secret analysis but requires that the information be obtained from a “protected computer.”  Under the CFAA a protected computer is either (1) a computer “exclusively for the use of a financial institution or the United States Government, ”18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(2)(A), or (2) a computer used in “interstate or foreign commerce or communication,” 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(2)(B).  The latter requirement is a low standard to meet

Tony’s computer is a protected computer because it was used in interstate communication.  Thus, the Misfeasors could be facing years of imprisonment or at least hefty fines.  Dr. Doom may escape penalty given that, as the sovereign of his own country, he will likely not extradite himself for prosecution.  And if the U.S. government came after Dr. Doom or any of the Misfeasors, it would likely take years to reach a resolution, which is probably why the story arc’s writers resolved the issue in a much swifter way.

Using the EEA and the CFAA to pursue real-world misfeasors may increase in the coming years.  The EEA and the CFAA give federal prosecutors—and to a lesser extent civil litigants—broad power to prosecute alleged misfeasors, making even attempts to misappropriate trade secrets actionable.  “The Department of Justice has made the investigation and prosecution of corporate and state sponsored trade secret theft a top priority. . . . The FBI is also expanding its efforts to fight computer intrusions that involve the theft of trade secrets by individual, corporate, and nation-state cyber hackers.”  See Office of the President, Admin. Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets at 7.

While there are many proponents and opponents of their use, there is no doubt that the Economic Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act have had profound effects.  Of course, you can always come to Law and the Multiverse to see how the EEA and the CFAA continue to affect super powered individuals—and Pepper Hamilton LLP if you ever need real-world advice.

Law and the Multiverse Retcon #5: The Crimes of the Mandarin

This is the fifth post in our Law and the Multiverse Retcons series, in which we discuss changes in the law (or corrections to our analysis) that affect older posts.  In this case we’re discussing a not-so-old post, this one from just a few weeks ago discussing the possible criminal liability of The Mandarin from Iron Man 3.  As with the original post, the correction requires pretty massive spoilers, so read on at your peril if you haven’t seen the movie yet (which you should, it’s great).

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Guest Blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy

This week we will be guest blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy, a fantastic legal blog co-founded by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and Emory law professor Alexander “Sasha” Volokh.  Over the years the Conspiracy has grown to include a number of contributors, most of whom are law professors.

We’ll be taking this opportunity to address some slightly more down to earth topics, particularly the show Elementary, which we’ve received a number of questions about.  Our first post is The Adventure of the Commandeered Snow Plow.

Potter’s Field

Potter’s Field is the 2011 crime noir comic written by the estimable Mark Waid (previously interviewed here!) with art by Paul Azaceta. It stars an anonymous investigator, who uses the apt moniker “John Doe”, who has taken on a mission: identifying the bodies buried in New York City’s Hart Island. The island is the eastern-most part of the Bronx and has been used as, well, a potter’s field, i.e., a burial ground for the indigent and/or unidentified, since the mid-nineteenth century. As with all stories in the crime genre, it brings a number of interesting legal issues to the fore, and we’ll be looking at both the idea of the potter’s field and a rather unusual species of identity theft. Spoilers within. Continue reading

Iron Man 3: The Crimes of The Mandarin

This post was inspired by an email question from Wayne and a comment from Martin, both of whom asked what crimes The Mandarin could be charged with.  Beware: the answer requires massive spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go see it.

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Iron Man 3: Surgery and Homicide

In this, our third post on Iron Man 3, we consider the question of whether Dr. Aldrich Killian could theoretically be criminally liable for the deaths of people injected with Extremis, or certain deaths caused by Extremis patients. The idea here is fairly straightforward. Deliberately doing something that one knows has a reasonable likelihood of killing someone else which actually does result in their deaths definitely constitutes some species of homicide offense in most jurisdictions. But surgeons do precisely that all the time, engaging in acts which, given only minute alterations, can be either life-saving or horrific. Every time someone goes under the knife, there is an at least minor chance that they will die on the operating table, and more serious conditions justify undergoing riskier procedures. Extremis has been shown to possess incredible restorative properties, including the regeneration of lost limbs, but it does carry with it certain risks. As such, which homicide offense, if any, would be the most appropriate to charge Killian with, and would he have any defenses?

Spoilers within, so be forewarned. Continue reading

Iron Man 3 Questions

We’re going to start our coverage of Iron Man 3 with some questions we received almost two weeks ago from Heiki, who saw the movie at a local premiere in Europe.  We had to wait to see it this weekend, but it was well worth it.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.  It’s a great movie.  There are some fairly serious spoilers below, though.

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