The blockbuster movie season has started. The movies are expensive, breezy, predictable, and highly enjoyable, especially the younger you are. The critics hate them, but as summer approaches, the public retreats to accessible escapism. The studios work mightily at finding just the right balance between familiarity (often in the form of sequels) and thrills. While Avatar created a whole new world of people, lexicon, and topography, its themes and story line are viewer-friendly and familiar. They have to be. Movies that stray away too much from concrete reality lose audience.
But who judges if a movie is real enough? As we are all human, we are all equally expert at judging motives of all parties to a movie plot. Scientists are often asked about a technology or gadget that is featured in a movie ("can people really do that?"), but lawyers are rarely asked whether events in a movie are even possible under the law. Lawyers would have a field day if asked. For example, CSI movies and TV shows greatly exaggerate the reliability of forensic “science”, the prominence of CSI personnel in resolving a crime, and the admissibility at trial of the evidence generated.
You might, respond, “who cares? I don’t want to know if the law shown in a movie is real.” We can’t really blame anyone for thinking this way. Injecting legal realism into a plot often sucks all the fun out of a movie.
But this blog is about the law, after all, and we back away from reporting on the law. Every once in a while, we may review some of the movies to see how closely they approximate legal reality. We will try to keep it entertaining, but we may go into a movie’s plot details. So, here’s a standing spoiler alert.
Let’s talk about Iron Man 2. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), an inventor billionaire, is Iron Man. Mr. Stark created a high tech suit that turns him into a super hero and that also allows him to live. Without the arc reactor, an important component of his armor, his heart would stop. The US Government wants Tony to fork over the technology behind the armor for national defense purposes. That’s villain number 1. Villain number 2 (there is a third villain, but he won’t be mentioned here) is of the super variety. His name is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian genius inventor fresh from a gulag and itching to thump Mr. Stark for what he considers a patent infringement on the arc reactor. So Vanko does what you or I might do if we wanted to enforce intellectual property rights: he builds his own super armor to ambush Iron Man/Stark at a car race in Monaco.
Problem One: Export violations. Tony Stark invented some of his armor’s technology while being held prisoner in the Middle East, but Stark Industries is US-based and the technology behind his armor is clearly tied to US soil. At one time, he was a major supplier of munitions to the US Government, he was thus probably registered with the US State Department and was accustomed to filing export licenses before shipping his technology overseas. Monaco is overseas. Thus, he would probably need to have first applied for an export license.
Problem Two: Patent Infringement. Prisoners tend to know the law better than most lawyers and Vanko had oodles of time to investigate the finer points of enforcing his intellectual property rights. While nothing can beat the adrenalin rush from thrashing a goody-to-shoes superhero, hiring a lawyer would have been more effective. A lawyer would have filed to protect the patent and gone after the rights to the intellectual property, as well as against the infringer. A lawyer would have invoked treaties and applied to agencies and enforcement authorities, probably sought injunctive relief and damages. The downside is that there aren’t too many pyrotechnics when you watch lawyers do this kind of stuff.
Principal and a founding member of GRVR Attorneys.