Image via the Lai brothers' lawsuit against Marvel

Sure, Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit can survive a massive Chitauri attack, but is it strong enough to withstand a copyright lawsuit? That’s the question at the heart of a new legal battle over Stark’s ensemble and allegations that Marvel may have cribbed from a pair of lower-profile artists when designing the Iron Man suit for its massively successful film franchise.

Ben Lai and Ray Lai, the brothers and comic book artists who run Horizon Comics, allege that Marvel drew inspiration from their 2001 comic book series Radix when designing Iron Man’s cinematic costume. In the lawsuit (which is available in full here), they claim that while the Iron Man comics feature the character in a “simple spandex-like attire and minimal armor,” in the film he is seen “wearing a fully mechanized suit of body armor” similar to their Radix design.

Radix comic book

Part of the Lais’ lawsuit involves proving Marvel was aware of and influenced by their work, rather than merely developing a similar idea independently. They actually have a couple of strong pieces of evidence in that column: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a Radix-inspired illustration for a grant proposal before subsequently apologizing to the Lai brothers in 2002. According to the lawsuit, “The controversy and MIT’s apology were widely reported in the media.”

Even more damning, the Lai brothers were hired by Marvel a month later. “The timing and negotiations leading to the Lai brothers’ hiring confirmed that the Lai brothers’ artistic work on Radix was a key reason for their employment,” the lawsuit claims. The brothers also allege they regularly distributed their Radix material to Marvel employees, even before they were hired.

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The key idea of the lawsuit actually expands beyond the films, asserting: “It was not until after the Lai brothers’ submitted their work in Radix to Marvel that Marvel began depicting Iron Man wearing the [fully-mechanized] Suits.”

Iron Man covers in 1972, 2001, and 2004, respectively; Radix was published in 2001

In addition to proving Marvel directly copied their work, there’s a separate issue of whether the Lai brothers filed their suit in a timely manner (the first Iron Man film was released in 2008). The final question is whether a mammoth company like Marvel could ever be challenged by a small, independent force—Marvel reportedly ignored a cease and desist letter from the Lai brothers (obviously), which is what prompted the lawsuit in the first place.

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