Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tony Stark and Intellectual Property, Part 1

Invincible Iron Man #1 Variant Cover, art by Bob Layton

Tony Stark is brilliant. He is the genius wonderboy of technology in the marvel universe. Reed Richards may have a better grasp on physics and Hank Pym may know biology, but Tony is the master of all things mechanical. And after the Extremis Virus was made a part of his genetic code, Tony evens know biology better than the average Ph.D. in cellular biology. Tony is a genius and resource for the Marvel World akin to the greatest technological minds of all time.

His ability to change the world is limitless. Unfortunately, so is his ego. When we first met Tony Stark, he was developing the Iron Man technology to save his life. Shortly thereafter, Tony decided that this technology was too dangerous for anyone but himself to have. He even refused to patent the armor, for fear that simply having his specifications documented would lead to their misuse (this decision bit Tony in the ass during the Armor Wars and The Best Defense storylines). In Tony Stark’s estimation, he was the only person with significant moral certitude to have and use his armor designs. Of course, this is a man who has flown drunkenly through a billboard in the Iron Man armor, beaten up the aquatic hero Stingray for no good reason, faked his death without telling anyone who cares for him about it, violated numerous national and international laws, and been the angry instigator in a fist fight with the Hulk. What kind of man finds himself in a conflict where the Hulk is the most reasonable person? Still, in light of all of this Tony vehemently believes the world cannot be given access to the Iron Man armor because they will use it the wrong way.

And now, in the “World’s Most Wanted” storyline in Iron Man, Tony is destroying all of his old Iron Man armors and even erasing the contents of his own mind, rather than have it fall into the hands of Norman Osbourn. Granted he’s also erasing information about the secret identities of every superhero who registered with the initiative, so kudos to Tony for protecting all of his contemporaries. Still, does Tony Stark have the right to remove his brain and all the knowledge that comes with it?

Does he have the right to be the sole controller of his weapons designs? And even then, does he have the right to destroy the wealth of knowledge in his brain, as he is doing in “World’s Most Wanted.”

I’d like to hear what our readers think before I write my response. In a week, I’m going to post my response to the question with examples gleaned from my years as an Iron Man reader. Put please let me know your thoughts.


jamused said...

Of course he does. You don't have to be Ayn Rand to see what kind of nightmare world would result from the proposition that the very contents of your mind belong to the State and you lack the right to alter, forget or refuse to divulge your thoughts and ideas.

Will said...

The problem here is that the Superhuman Registration Act (which he supported) required registration and Tony deleted that information from all sources (including his brain). I am not saying his brain becomes property of the government, but he definitely commited a crime. The repercussions of the SHA were apparent to anyone but Tony and Reed because they both just assumed they would always be in charge of the information. Sadly, the government has appointed Norman Osborn, and Tony's actions were criminal (but probably morally correct).

Michael T said...

He certainly has the legal right. Patent law promises a limited monopoly in return for complete details of the invention so that others can (a) improve on it during the patent term and (b) incorporate it into new inventions and designs without paying royalties after the patent term. In this way the state of the art moves forward and inventors are incentivized.

Tony has elected to forego these rights. He has no limited monopoly, and will receive no royalties on his inventions. Maybe he doesn't need the money, but that's up to him. What he risks by doing this is that anybody else may develop armor that would otherwise infringe on his patents (if he had them) and he can do nothing about it.

It's a truism: half the battle in inventing something is knowing it can be done. The world knows that Iron Man exists. So lesser lights than Tony can duplicate the armor and owe him nothing. At a minimum I would think Reed Richards would be able to do anything Tony Stark can.

Tom said...

Yes. Imagine a similar scenario featuring a vaccuum invetor. Could that inventor destroy his invention, his blueprints, his neat new concepts (a ball! it rotates!)? Sure. Same with Iron Man, except he doesn't suck stuff up, he blows stuff up.

Also, I agree with Michael, I think you're underestimating the pool of potential competitors to Tony's engineering throne. Magneto, Forge, and the guy that built those Sentinels (Trask) have all shown ample talent for weapons development. That's just off the top of my head. There's also plenty of support staff for these guys if they get stuck, like Hank McCoy, Jean Grey, they guy with the telescoping legs from Daredevil, and a legion of OsCorp scientists

Smooge said...

Does he have the right to be the sole controller of his weapons designs? And even then, does he have the right to destroy the wealth of knowledge in his brain, as he is doing in “World’s Most Wanted.”

A) His own mind is most likely an ok thing.

B) His weapon designs on the other hand could be covered under various international treaties especially since a lot of his suit is a "Weapon of Mass Destruction".

C) He has also allowed various suits in the past be mass-built for the government. Which was part of his "Armor Wars" problems when he went after some Guardsmen suits.

D) Given just the parts of his armor that have been ripped off of him since armor wars would be enough for Hank McCoy, the Leader, or heck Peter Parker to reinvent it if needed.

As you pointed out, it is clear that Tony Stark is not a healthy individual. One could easily label him an alcoholic megalomaniac. The government should commit him because he is definitely a danger to society and he most likely has backups of his brain... I mean every megalomaniac super genius that has been a villain has had one or two.

algeya said...

Speaking as a guy with a Proffesional degree
(architecture, and animation)

At some point knowledge must be shared,
Most of the scientist, or other kinds pros in their fields
were able to create and improve great stuff because of the
work of their predesesors

Without the work of the guys who discored and worked
with electricity like Benjamin Franklin,
Tesla wouldnt be able to make great advances in Technology
because instead of making new types of power plants who
would use his iq to discover the lightbulb again, because the
original technology was lost

like those 800 years old martial arts, that were perfected and improved
because the techniques were passed

Stark as the inventor of Iron technology has the right to erase his mind but not his
work, he of course can gain profit and keep it locked for a while.

brenatevi said...

Yes, he has the right. While it might not be "beneficial" to the rest of society, and might be considered a selfish act, he created suit, therefor he has the right to destroy it. It's like a novelist that burns the unpublished manuscript to his novel. Are you going to force the writer to publish?

Of course, that doesn't mean people will be happy with him over it, but I don't think Tony Stark could care less about how happy people are with him.

Tweedbolt said...

oh ye pitiful devotees to intellectual property. While the Marvel/U.S. constitution does grant him the right to dispose of his creation as he sees fit, he should come to realize the benefit of sharing the armor design with everyone. Open-source Iron Man Armor. Sure the bad guys would have it, but there are so many more good guys that would be able to work together to make it better than whatever evil version the bad guys could come up with.

Arenamontanus said...

When do other people have a sufficient claim on your memories that they morally could claim you are doing them a wrong by erasing them? In a paper (pdf) I wrote about the ethics of memory manipulation, me and my co-author argued that there could indeed be memories that are so important that others could claim this: "Moreover, as we have mentioned, there might be prima facie duties to preserve certain memories that are important not just to one but also to others, e.g., Neil Armstrong’s memory of landing on the moon, or a Holocaust victim’s semantic memory of what had taken place in the concentration camp."

Perhaps a better example (which I of course came up with after writing the paper) would be a politician in office. Here the voters and the political system may have a legitimate interest in demanding that the politician not forget inconvenient facts or decisions. So there are situations where there are duties to preserve memory.

But these duties may not be terribly strong. We argue that in our example, the pain experienced by the survivor may legitimately overrule any duty to remember. Values such as autonomy and the ability to live a good life could in many cases allow people to erase their memories. In fact, personally I believe self-ownership and morphological freedom trumps outside claims to my mind.

In the Stark case the situation is a bit like the politician case above. However, he is no longer in office. He might be morally bound by office-related moral duties that suggest he should hand over relevant information to his successor, but he is likely (I don't know SHIELDs official list of core values) to also have office-related (and general human) moral duties to ensure that sensitive information is handled in the appropriate manner. (I am reminded of how CIA has integrity as one of their three core values) If he thinks his successor would be bad according to these duties or values, then he is almost obliged to erase his memories. In fact, that is probably more responsible than just running around with them, since he cannot fully trust his future self.

Alex said...

I would think that the Iron Man suit itself can be looked at as Stark's sole invention, while the government contracted weaponry developed by him is owned by his company (and, by extension, his shareholders).

Legally, it might just depend on what he's deleting in that case. The deletion of all superheroes in the SHRA, unless otherwise contracted (i.e. if somehow Stark himself was to be the sole person that knew) and of military secrets would put him in a legal bind. But his personal Iron Man suit, which would essentially not be tied to Stark's company nor with the government (Stark himself would have to register his own person, not the equipment) would be ok.

Morally speaking though, it becomes more difficult. We're talking about military hardware here, not something as innocuous or all-purpose as a web browser. The worry is that any government can take advantage of this technology and easily wipe out other opponents (isn't that partly the case for the Armor Wars?). Innovation in this case would lead to power struggles that don't benefit the people as a whole.

This was likely Stark's main concern, which is why he had traditionally kept the most advanced technologies secret (namely his own suit). And the setup was probably working; let some of the more obsolete stuff out to allow for progress, but keep the most advanced stuff secret. Stark may be wrong in thinking that he can ultimately control government policy, but he might be right in thinking that he should keep his best secrets from everyone else.

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Jeff said...

As was mentioned earlier, Patents extend time-limited monopolies to their holders, but Tony Stark chose to forego those monopoly rights. Therefore, it is legal to develop in parallel any technology similar or the same any of the Iron Man systems, so long as the development is not based on stolen Iron Man schematics or parts (which would require illegal physical theft at the outset).

A good example of this parallel systems development is the armor of Doctor Doom. To my knowledge, Victor Von Doom's armor and Doombots were developed independently of Stark's designs (also because Doom's ego has prevented him from relying on the work of others on several previous occasions), yet has many of the same features: flight capabilities, enhanced strength, energy shields, and an array of guns and blasters (though it may not use Stark's proprietary Repulsor technology). Yet, Doom and Stark have never fought over Stark's intellectual property, because his ideas were never stolen - simply duplicated legally.

However, Tony's Armor Wars went too far to the other extreme. Taking back stolen property is morally and legally defensible (leaving the debate over whether spurning the authorities to commit vigilante actions is defensible for another time). Additionally, there is merit to the idea that designs based on stolen property may also be rightfully reclaimed, though there is a gray area in proving that those designs are, in fact, based on stolen materials (in the Marvel Universe, however, finding proof of stolen property is remarkably easy as many supervillains proudly display "Iron Man-esque" aesthetic elements or brag about the thefts outright). However, designs and property given or sold to other parties with Stark's knowledge cannot be legally or morally reclaimed without the permission of the possessors (e.g. the Guardsmen at the Vault maximum security facility). To do so would be a breach of the contract between Stark and those parties, regardless of the "danger" of proliferation that exists because the technology exists outside of Stark's direct control. It is arrogant of Stark to assume that any of his technologies are his to reclaim at any time due to this "danger" of proliferation, as these are considerations he should have heeded when these contracts were made. It would have been in both Stark and the other parties' interests to have created some sort of lease or rental agreement of Iron Man tech that would have alleviated Stark's concerns over direct control over his intellectual property while still having made the technology available for use. Instead, it is damaging both to the parties using these technologies and to Stark's business and reputation to knowingly violate these contracts, especially considering that the goal of preventing proliferation is being undermined daily by Doctor Doom, the Tinkerer, Forge, the Trasks, Norman Osborn, and many others who develop similar parallel technologies lawfully.

As said before, Stark is wasting time and energy attempting to curtail proliferation of only his weapon designs - but he is also damaging his business and reputation while doing so. It would be a far better use of his time to focus on innovations and inventions to keep ahead of his competitors and villains (which, admittedly, Stark already does, but to a lesser degree), rather than harming his relationships with his clients, his allies, and the international community.

David J said...

This is something I've also wondered about Batman, but how much in the way of corporate assets did Stark use for the research and development of his armors? He may not in fact be the sole holder of the rights to the intellectual property in question.

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