This week, comic fans across the country and in the Fool's Marvel Enterprises (NYSE: MVL ) community were buzzing with the latest news from the profitable nexus of computer gaming and superheroes. Unfortunately, it wasn't the release of an exciting new title from Activision (Nasdaq: ATVI ) or Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS ) . It was a lawsuit against little-known game makers NCsoft and Cryptic Studios, who publish City of Heroes.
Here's Marvel's beef: The firm claims that City of Heroes allows players to rip off Marvel's intellectual property because users can fashion online characters that are substantially similar to Marvel characters.
I haven't been able to try it out. (Rats! No demo.) But here's how the game works. As denizens of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), subscribers live in a virtual world with thousands of others. They fashion their own personalities. The game allows them to develop myriad individual characteristics which, when combined, provide a nearly infinite number of character possibilities.
So sure, you could come up with a Hulk or Wolverine, but it's hardly a foregone conclusion when there are 2.24 quadrillion possibilities. In fact, to judge by reviews, most of the game's aficionados are more interested in creating really unique combos. Some of these will even be featured in a related monthly comic book.
As a Marvel shareholder, I'm glad the company is keeping its eyes open to stop unauthorized (and unpaid) use of its intellectual property. An image like this one makes you wonder whether they're not cribbing just a bit from The Punisher's well-known logo.
On the other hand, the skull is hardly an original motif. Does it matter whether City of Heroes swiped it from Marvel or from the guy that Marvel swiped it from? Aren't they all sipping from the same glass of Kool-Aid here? How seriously should any of this be taken?
When I ponder it myself, as a computer gamer and a reasonable human being, I have three words for Marvel's management: Lighten up, dudes.
As others have pointed out, you need pursue this line of (il)logic only a little further before you get to the point where Marvel is suing Crayola for allowing the nation's five-year-olds to scribble out their poorly drawn Spider-men and Incredible Hulks. Going to ask Binney & Smith to get rid of red, blue, and green? Why not take a poke at Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR ) , since The Incredibles are pretty obviously based on the family dynamic made popular by Fantastic Four?
Listen up, Marvel: Hardcore comic-book fans may not provide your bread and butter now that you're a licensing powerhouse, but no one likes a bully, and everyone likes to see the heel get his comeuppance. You guys in the fancy suits need to spend a little less time with the law tomes. Devote a bit more time to thumbing through Marvel's comics, and reflect on the appeal of Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk movies. Remember good versus evil? Little guy triumphs over the rich, pompous supervillain?
Take a lesson from your own library, and end this foolishness amicably. Or better yet, use some of your ample cash to buy the outfit; then give it a long leash. The folks at City of Heroes seem to have a much better idea of fun and fair play than you do.
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Seth Jayson owns shares of Marvel Enterprises and wishes he had enough of them to kick a little hind-end at HQ. At the time of publication, he had positions in no other firm mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.