Category Archives: Spider-Man

Uncle Ben at the Supreme Court

Thanks to Joe, Josh, and others for pointing out Justice Kagan’s quotation in yesterday’s decision in Kimble v. Marvel:

What we can decide, we can undecide. But stare decisis teaches that we should exercise that authority sparingly. Cf. S. Lee and S. Ditko, Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “Spider-Man,” p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility”). Finding many reasons for staying the stare decisis course and no “special justification” for departing from it, we decline Kimble’s invitation to overrule Brulotte.

I happen to disagree with the majority’s decision; Brulotte v. Thys was wrongly decided*, and the Court wasted a rare opportunity to correct a mistake.  So on the one hand the citation and other references to Spider-Man were fun, but on the other hand it felt a little too cute by half for a decision that will ultimately result in Marvel (now part of the second largest media company in the world) avoiding royalty payments to an individual inventor whose idea Marvel (apparently) pretty blatantly ripped off.  The tone of the opinion is incongruous with its consequences.

It may seem a little overly dramatic in a case that is ultimately about money, but I am reminded of Robert Cover’s Violence and the Word:

Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death. This is true in several senses. Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life. Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence. Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another.

This is not to say that all judicial writing should be humorless.  I have enjoyed reading any number of funny, often acerbic opinions, but those opinions were usually written in response to parties that were themselves behaving badly or foolishly, and so deserved to be treated lightly or even mockingly.  In this case, however, the Court has sided with a multi-billion dollar corporation over an individual inventor and did so on fairly technical grounds.  The majority interpreted the law of stare decisis, and as a result Stephen Kimble lost his property (i.e. the contractual right to royalties from sales of the patented toy).  This does not seem like an appropriate occasion for such levity.

Stepping back off my soap box, I promise the next post will return to discussing the legal implications of comic book hijinks.

* A full discussion of why this is the case is beyond the scope of this blog, but if you’re interested, see the dissent in Kimble and Judge Posner’s opinion in Scheiber v. Dolby Labs.

Ultimate Spider-Man #117

The question behind today’s post comes from Levi.  Trigger warning: this post deals extensively and frankly with the subject of suicide.

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Nobody Foresees the Lizard

We received a great question about The Amazing Spider-Man and liability for the damage done by the villain.  Spoilers below!

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The Amazing Spider-Man: Warrants and Assault

As we discussed in our background post, most of the issues in The Amazing Spider-Man aren’t new, but there are two stand-outs.  There are some  minor spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen the trailers, and a couple of very minor spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen the film.

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The Amazing Spider-Man: Background

So The Amazing Spider-Man came out last weekend. This is a “reboot” of the Spider-Man cinematic franchise. Rumor has it that Sony’s rights to the franchise would expire if they didn’t release a film every so often, so when Raimi withdrew from the planned Spider-Man 4, the studio opted for a full-on reboot. Given the choice between an arguably too-soon reboot—Spider-Man was only ten years ago and Spider-Man 3 came out in 2007—and letting to of what was almost guaranteed to be a multi-million dollar cash cow, the choice seems pretty obvious.

This post is actually more of a reminder about things we’ve already discussed rather than an exploration of new ground. We’ve already talked about a lot of the legal issues raised by Spider-Man, and The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t exactly break much new ground here. The following touches on most of the more obvious issues in the movie. We’ll follow this up with some new material on Friday.  In the meanwhile, if you have any questions, feel free to mention them in the comments or email us!

Just last month we talked about Spider-Man and likeness rights, something related to two guest posts on the right of publicity generally.

This one isn’t immediately relevant to the new movie, as Parker’s connection with The Daily Bugle hasn’t been established yet, but we did look at the possibility liability Parker has for not being entirely honest with the Bugle about his relationship with Spider-Man.

We took a brief look at a story from Ultimate Spider-Man # 6 back in February.

Spider-Man isn’t a journalist in this movie—now he just takes pictures for the school newspaper and yearbook, etc.—but he is in a lot of the comics, and we looked at that here.

In April 2011 we examined whether patents might be a problem for Parker given that he’s arguably making off with sensitive data. We then revisited the issue last September, considering the passage of the America Invents Act on our earlier discussion.

A bit earlier we did a two post series on superpowered minors, and while we don’t talk about Spider-Man directly, it’s possibly relevant, although we don’t know exactly how old Peter is in this version.

One thing that is more directly relevant is the issue of costumes and the confrontation clause, something that this version of Spider-Man might well have to deal with given the way he drops off criminals for the cops. We don’t specifically mention Spider-Man in that post, but he does wind up testifying in costume in an early She-Hulk comic, so it’s definitely an issue.

Related to costumes, we discussed the issue of superhero merchandising (part two), something which actually comes into play in the movie. We see a guy wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt, for example.

Then there’s the duty to rescue, an issue always raised in any discussion of Uncle Ben’s death, but thrown in sharp relief here given the way it’s portrayed this time.

Very early on we did a four-part series (one, two, three, four) on superheroes and privacy rights. This issue is touched on rather explicitly by the film, as the dangers Parker’s activities as Spider-Man will pose to his loved ones are discussed.

Mayor Jameson’s Eminent Domain Problem

We’ve picked on Spider-Man a bit recently, so in interests of fairness we’re going to pick on J. Jonah Jameson, who is currently the mayor of New York in the Marvel Universe.  Recently, Jameson has focused his ire on Horizon Labs, a research and development company that happens to employ Peter Parker in his capacity as a scientist.

The particular issue in today’s post comes from a question from Christopher, who writes:

[In Amazing Spider-Man #682] Parker and other Horizon Labs employees witness a confrontation between HL owner Max Modell and Mayor Jameson in which the Mayor says “As Mayor of this city, I am ordering all of you to vacate these premises immediately!” He has arrived to bully HL into shutting down and gives various reasons [, listed below]. Later in issue 683 he comes back with “Chief Pratchett” presumably some ranking officer in the NYPD and shuts off the company’s power supply: “You’re not getting a single amp out of Con Ed!” He then orders “Chief Pratchett, have your men clear the building, after that, no one gets in or out, understood?” Chief Pratchett accedes to the request but we cut away from the confrontation and don’t return this issue.

This is obviously an ongoing storyline which will play out over another 4/5 issues but surely Jameson is overstepping his authority to clear out a private building without any kind of court order. And isn’t Pratchett wrong to comply?

At various points in #682 and #683 Jameson gives some reasons for wanting Horizon Labs shut down, including:

1. “This man has access to spider-jammers that could control Spider-man! Yet he refuses to turn them over to the city!” (see Spider-Island 667-673)
2. “One of your people built a time machine that did destroy the city.” (678-679)
3. “And now I hear you have a monster holed up here?!” (679.1 The “monster” is Dr. Morbius)
4. “Two days ago, you almost got my son killed.” (680-681)

So, is any of this sufficient to justify cutting power and ordering the police to clear the building?

As Horizon’s lawyer, who was present for the first confrontation with Jameson, argues, probably not.  The spider-jammers have been destroyed, the EPA cleared Horizon regarding the alternate universe incident (who knew that the EPA had jurisdiction over time travel and alternate futures?), and Dr. Morbius isn’t a monster but rather suffers from a poorly-understood medical condition.  Jameson isn’t satisfied and vows to return, which leads to the second confrontation (the one with the power-cutting and the police).

But suppose Jameson’s allegations were correct.  Could the mayor really do that?  And if not, what is the potential liability for Pratchett and the other police officers?

I. Eminent Domain

The most likely source of Jameson’s power to order Horizon shut down is eminent domain, which allows the taking of private property for public use in exchange for just compensation.  New York has a statute, the New York Eminent Domain Procedure Law, that is just what it sounds like.  It sets out “the exclusive procedure by which property shall be acquired by exercise of the power of eminent domain in New York state.”  N.Y. Eminent Domain Proc. Law § 101.  Unfortunately for Jameson, it doesn’t look like he has complied with the procedures.

A. Public Hearing

Ordinarily the eminent domain process begins with a public hearing.  § 201.  However, there are some exemptions, one of which is when “because of an emergency situation the public interest will be endangered by any delay caused by the public hearing requirement in this article.” § 206(D).  I suppose it’s arguable that Horizon presents such an extreme danger to the city that a public hearing can be avoided.

However, Horizon labs could file suit to challenge the City’s determination that it is exempt under § 206(D).  “Where, however, a condemnor proceeds under one of the exemptions provided in EDPL 206, and therefore claims that it is not required to comply with the foregoing notice, hearing, and determination requirements, a condemnee may, unless otherwise provided by statute, challenge the applicability of the claimed exemption in the Supreme Court … .” Steel Los III, LP v. Power Authority of N.Y., 33 A.D.3d 990, 990-91 (2006).  The reviewing court would almost certainly issue a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction preventing the City from shutting down Horizon until it had reviewed the case.  Given that Horizon appears to be represented by competent legal counsel, I think it’s likely Horizon would go to court once Jameson threatened to take the building.

B. Negotiations

The eminent domain law also requires the condemnor (i.e. the City) to “make every reasonable and expeditious effort to justly compensate persons for such real property by negotiation and agreement” “at all stages prior to or subsequent to an acquisition by eminent domain.” § 301.  This includes making at least one written offer representing the just compensation for the property.  § 303.

In this case, we don’t see any discussion of compensation, much less negotiation or a written offer.  Instead, Jameson seems to think he can simply take the building outright.  There is a lot more to eminent domain, but I think that’s enough to establish that Jameson wasn’t doing it right.

II. Consequences

Assuming the City can’t legally take the building through eminent domain, what are the possible consequences for cutting power and forcibly evacuating the building?  The most likely result is a § 1983 suit alleging a violation of Horizon’s constitutional rights, specifically their rights under the Fourth Amendment.  If successful, this could result in an award of actual damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.  Given the expensive equipment and experiments that may have been lost or damaged by the sudden loss of power, that could be a pretty significant bill for the city.

Importantly, the City and officers could claim qualified immunity under § 1983.  “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009).  “The protection of qualified immunity applies regardless of whether the government official’s error is a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact.”  Id.

So, for example, if the officers were told that the City had a court order to shut down Horizon, then the officers might not be liable because they were operating under a mistake of fact.  Jameson, however, clearly knew what was up, and I think it would be hard for him to claim qualified immunity, at least if he thought he was exercising the power of eminent domain, since a reasonable person would have known about the proper procedure for doing so.

III. Conclusion

There are other possible ways that the City could try to shut down Horizon (e.g. alleging violations of the law and arresting everyone or suing the company), but the way it’s depicted in the comics really suggests eminent domain to me.  I think it’s reasonable to assume that if the City had a good claim to criminal or illegal activity then it would have simply called in the cops or sent in the lawyers.  Jameson’s approach is so vague that eminent domain is the only thing that I can think of that fits the bill.  Alas, his failure to follow proper procedures is likely to get him (and the City) sued.

Peter Parker, Con Artist?

The inspiration for today’s post comes from Greg, who asks:

During the Civil War storyline, for a brief time Peter Parker “outed” himself as Spider-Man. … J. Jonah Jameson wanted to sue Peter for fraud because he sold pictures of Spider-Man to the Daily Bugle under  what [Jameson] claimed were false pretenses. My question is, would that hold any water?

The facts for this question come from Amazing Spider-Man #533 (which you can buy reprinted in The Amazing Spider-Man: Civil War).  Specifically, a lawyer for the Bugle tells Parker that the Bugle is suing him for “misrepresentation, fraud, breach of contract and several other related charges” and they are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages of at least five million dollars.  So, how worried should Parker be about this?  Pretty worried, in our estimation.  Let’s take a look at each charge in turn.

(Before we get started, we’ll mention that there would have to have been a contract between Parker and the Bugle for the photographs because, as an independent contractor, Parker owned the copyright in his photos and would need to license or sell the copyright to the Bugle via a contract before they could be printed.  See this post for more on that.)

I. Misrepresentation

Because both breach of contract and fraud are also listed, we think that misrepresentation is being used in the contract law sense rather than the tort law sense.  In the contract law sense, misrepresentation is also known as fraud in the inducement (i.e. a misrepresentation made in order to induce the other party to enter into a contract).  This should not be confused with the tort of fraud, which we’ll get to shortly.

In New York, “To recover under a theory of fraudulent inducement, the plaintiff must prove: (1) misrepresentation of a material fact; (2) falsity of the representation; (3) scienter; (4) reasonable reliance; and (5) damages.” Creative Waste Mgmt., Inc. v. Capitol Env. Servs., Inc., 429 F.Supp.2d 582, 607 (S.D.N.Y. 2006).  “Scienter” is a fancy legal word for “knowledge,” and in this case means the defendant has to make the misrepresentation knowingly.

So, has the Bugle likely got a case for fraud in the inducement here?  Let’s go through the elements.

(1) Misrepresentation of a material fact.

Right off the bat we run into a small snag: did Parker ever explicitly claim that the photos were unstaged photos of a different person?  Maybe, maybe not.  But even if he didn’t, his silence may be enough.

“[W]hen dealing with a claim of fraud based on material omissions, it is settled that a duty to disclose arises only when one party has information that the other party is entitled to know because of a fiduciary or other similar relation of trust and confidence between them.” Creative, 429 F.Supp.2d at 607.  Such a relation can be imputed by the “special facts doctrine,” under which “the courts impose a duty on a party with superior knowledge of essential facts to disclose those facts where nondisclosure would make the transaction inherently unfair. For this doctrine to be applicable, the plaintiff must prove that (1) one party has superior knowledge of certain information; (2) that information is not readily available to the other party; and (3) the first party knows that the second party is acting on the basis of mistaken knowledge.” Id.

Clearly, Parker had superior knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity.  Jameson had no clue who Spider-Man was and certainly didn’t suspect Parker.  The information was not readily available, as demonstrated by the fact that quite a few people, Jameson included, had tried and failed to determine Spider-Man’s identity.  And it can reasonably be assumed that Parker knew that Jameson wouldn’t have bought the photos if he knew they were staged and being sold to him by Spider-Man.

So Parker’s misrepresentation by omission will suffice.  It’s also definitely a material misrepresentation (i.e. it would have made a difference in whether a contract was agreed to) because Jameson would not have bought the photos if he knew the truth.

(2) falsity of the representation

This one is pretty easy.  At the very least the photos were falsely presented as genuine news photographs and not a semi-staged photo-op for Spider-Man.

(3) scienter

No question here; Parker definitely knew he wasn’t being honest about the photographs.

(4) reasonable reliance

Another easy one.  It was entirely reasonable for Jameson to believe that Parker was not Spider-Man and that the photos were genuine.  Unlike some superheroes (*cough* Superman *cough*), Spider-Man does a believable job of keeping his identity secret, and there was nothing incredible about the photos.

(5) damages

This one is also straightforward.  The Bugle paid Parker money for the photos, per the contract, and so there are damages.

So that’s misrepresentation established.  What does it get the Bugle?  The likely result is rescission of the contract and restitution of any money paid to Parker for the photographs.  So the Bugle gets its money back and no longer owes Parker anything under the contract.

II. Breach of Contract

This one is a little harder to write about, since we don’t know what the terms of the contract were.  It’s extremely likely, however, that the contract included a representations and warranties section in which Parker affirmatively represented that the photos were genuine, unmodified, unstaged, etc.  By trying to pass off the (effectively) staged photos, Parker would have breached the contract.

The practical upshot of the breach of contract claim is the remedy.  Breach of contract remedies are a little complicated, but the main damages here will be the loss of value due to lost reputation.  What it definitely doesn’t get the Bugle is punitive damages, as damages in contract cases are almost always compensatory. Even in cases of a fraudulent breach of contract, punitive damages are not available unless the fraud was “malicious, vindictive or morally reprehensible [demonstrating the] intent of wanton and reckless behavior.” Reinah Development Corp. v. Kaaterskill Hotel Corp., 59 N.Y.2d 482, 487 (1983).  Parker was not trying to scam the Bugle, so we don’t think his conduct rises to that level.

Because the damage due to lost reputation is so hard to measure, it’s possible that Parker’s contract with the Bugle included a liquidated damages clause.  A liquidated damages clause lets the parties agree to a particular amount of damages in advance.  Parker could thus be on the hook for whatever that amount is times the number of photos the Bugle printed (or, less likely, the number it purchased).

III. Fraud

“Generally, in a claim for fraudulent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must allege a misrepresentation or a material omission of fact which was false and known to be false by defendant, made for the purpose of inducing the other party to rely upon it, justifiable reliance of the other party on the misrepresentation or material omission, and injury.” Mandarin Trading Ltd. v. Wildenstein, 16 N.Y.3d 173, 178 (2011).  As you can see, that’s remarkably similar to the elements of fraud in the inducement.  The difference in this case is in the remedy.  Whereas the remedy for fraud in the inducement is to undo the contract, the remedy for tortious fraud covers all of the damages stemming from the Bugle‘s reliance on Parker’s misrepresentations and omissions.

But wait a minute, that sounds a lot like the breach of contract damages.  And that’s right: the damages for fraud would be essentially identical to the damages for breaching the representations clause of the contract.  But you don’t get to recover twice for the same injury, so even if the Bugle proved both claims it wouldn’t get twice as much money.  So why bother suing for both?  First, because it might not be able to prove both claims and second, because the contract might not include a representations section (though this is unlikely)

IV. Conclusion

All told, Parker is looking at a pretty serious lawsuit.  As well he should, since passing off staged or manipulated photographs is a serious journalistic no-no, even if it’s done for the best of reasons.

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man

The new run of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man from Brian Michael Bendis is getting rave reviews.  There haven’t been a ton of overt legal issues, but a scene from the recent issue #6 caught my eye.  Spoilers ahead!

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