Brothers Ben and Ray Lai have succeeded in keeping their two-year-old copyright lawsuit against Marvel and Disney alive, although many of their claims were dismissed by a federal judge in Manhattan. The brothers claimed that Marvel’s movie version of the Iron Man character was a knock-off of their short-lived Radix series.
Radix was a sci-fi series originally published by Image back in 2001 and 2002, and only ran for four issues. But the series has lived on thanks to two high-profile cases. In addition to taking Marvel to court, an image from the series was used by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 to win a $50 million grant.
Here’s what you need to know about the lawsuit and the comics series.
1. The Only Claim That Survives Accuses Marvel of Copying a Pose from ‘Radix’
In their copyright lawsuit, the Lai brothers claimed that Marvel’s 2008 Iron Man movie copied the look of armor they designed for the Radix comics. Although Tony Stark and Iron Man have existed in Marvel comics since 1963, they claimed that before Radix was first published in 2001, Iron Man was still “wearing simple spandex-like attire and minimal armor.” (They must have forgotten that Iron Man’s first armor, as he appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 in March 1963, really was a bulky full-body suit of armor.)
“It was not until after the Lai brother’s submitted their work in Radix … that Marvel began depicting Iron Man wearing the suits,” the lawsuit read. The lawsuit lists Horizon Comics as the plaintiffs. The defendants are Marvel, Disney and their subsidiaries. Since Paramount Pictures was an original co-producer on Iron Man, the studio is also listed as a defendant.
In the opinion, U.S. District Court Judge J. Paul Oetken agreed that there was some similarity between Iron Man’s movie armor and the Radix armor. However, he dismissed claims that there were any other major similarities between the two properties.
The one claim that did survive is that Marvel copied a kneeling position from Radix for the 2013 Iron Man 3 poster. Oetken wrote that there was a “similarity of expression” between the two images. But the judge said that the idea of body armor is too common in comic books to be protected.
2. Marvel Has Been Trying to Get the Lawsuit Dismissed Since 2015
Marvel has been fighting the Lai brothers since 2015. They filed their lawsuit in April 2015, The Hollywood Reporter reported at the time. You can read the original lawsuit here. The suit was filed in Massachusetts, even though the plaintiffs are based in Canada.
“My brother Ben and I are thrilled that the judge, despite Marvel’s and Disney’s efforts to have the case thrown out, has recognized that we have a legitimate claim,” Ray Lai said in a statement through their attorney to The New York Post.
Marvel, Disney and Paramount didn’t comment on the decision.
3. In 2002, MIT Apologized for Using ‘Radix’ Art to Win a $50 Million Grant
According to Comic Vine, Radix only ran three issues, plus a special #0 preview, from December 2001 to April 2002. Despite the short run, it gained some notoriety in 2002, when MIT apologized for using an image from Radix to help win a $50 million research contract. MIT won the grant, and it helped them establish the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.
As USA Today reported in 2002, Ray and Ben Lai said they never gave MIT their permission to use the image.
“Everything MIT used, from the character, to the uniform, to the background and the helmet, was taken from the comic,” Ray Lai told USA Today in 2002. “We make our characters do extraordinary things like leap buildings and become invisible.”
MIT later said it regretted using the image, but were not aware that it came from a comic book.
4. The Lai Brothers Say Marvel Knew About ‘Radix’ Because They Worked For Marvel
The Lai brothers said that the notoriety they got in 2002, plus the fact that they worked for Marvel briefly, means that the comics giant was aware of Radix. In the lawsuit, the brothers claim that they “personally distributed Radix promotional materials” to “key personnel” at Marvel even before the MIT controversy.
Later, the brothers did some freelance work for Marvel. They drew several issues of Thor in 2003 with writer Dan Jurgens and worked with Tony Lee and Mark Millar on X-Men comics in 2003 and 2004. They also worked on an issue of G.I. Joe Battle Files in 2002.
The Lai brothers first entered the comic industry at CrossGen Comics, drawing the first issues of Sigil. Today, the CrossGen comics are owned by Disney and Marvel published a short-lived revival in 2011.
5. The Plot of ‘Radix’ Was Nothing Like ‘Iron Man’
The plot of Radix was nothing like Iron Man. According to the synopsis at Comic Vine, the series was set in a society where technological advancement is more important than the human factor.
The lead character, named Valerie Fiores, tries to break from that to learn about herself, her past and the world she lives in. At the same time, five of the six major cities on earth are destroyed by a mysterious force and the last city needs to be saved. The series was published in a partnership with Image Comics.
Since the plot of Radix and Iron Man are so dissimilar, the judge had to dismiss the majority of the Lai brothers’ claims.
“This is not a case where only non-copyrightable elements exist in the work, nor is it one where the Court can conclude, at this stage, that ‘no reasonable jury, properly instructed, could find that the two works are substantially similar’ based on their ‘total concept and overall feel,” the lawsuit reads.