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Montreal comic book artists claim Marvel abusing legal system in copyright battle

Montreal comic-book artist Ray Lai said that no matter the time, effort or legal expense, he and his brother Ben will defend their work, even if it’s against a force as powerful as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

“If you come up with an original idea, it’s your job to protect it, and if you don’t do it, you might as well not do it anymore,” the artist told CTV News.

The Lai brothers are embroiled in a legal fight against Marvel and Disney, who they say stole design elements in the film versions featuring the characters Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp.

A recently filed abuse of process motion argues that the industry juggernauts have tried to delay or dismiss their copyright infringement case using deceitful tactics.

“The defendants appear to be acting with the intention of drowning the plaintiff procedures and documentation and thus exhaust them financially,” the motion reads. “In addition to the unnecessary steps that the plaintiffs [Lai brothers] have had to take… the claimant has had to deal with a number of unnecessary objections and unreasonable positions of the defendants.”

Since the proceedings began in 2021, the Lai brothers’ lawyer, Julie Desrosiers, said Marvel has attempted to dismiss the case, objected to key witnesses being deposed, and tried to bury the lawyers in documents without title, all while increasing fees for her clients and delaying the case unnecessarily.

“We realized that they did some things that misled the court and misled us with respect to revenues and profits deriving from these films in Canada,” said Desrosiers. “We decided to file a motion for abuse of process so that the Lai brothers can recuperate some of the fees that they spent in fighting against these proceedings.”

The motion seeks almost $180,000 to recoup legal fees that have mounted for the Lai brothers.

Montreal-based comic book artist Ben and Ray Lai, claim elements from their Radix comic designs (left) were used in Marvel’s Iron Man 3 suit and subsequent images. The brothers are suing Marvel and Disney. (Court document)

“I don’t want to sound cliche and say it’s our baby, but when you start doing something, you have to if you really believe in it, you have to go all the way,” said Ray Lai. “You can’t just say, ‘well, you know, somebody takes it, I’m just going to start over,’ then everybody’s gonna just keep [taking it].”

The brothers allege in their original suit that Marvel used designs from the Lai brothers’ Radix series in its Iron Man and Ant-Man costumes for Marvel’s blockbuster films.

The brothers are seeking compensatory damages and or “profits that marvel obtained as a result of the infringement, in an amount to be dtermined after full inquiry.” They also asked for the court to issue Marvel and Disney a ” permanent injunction to put an end to this deliberate and persistent infringement.”

Copying work from the beginning

The Lai brothers started creating comics in 1995 and quickly made a name for themselves in the industry, getting hired by CrossGen Comics before returning to Montreal to develop the Radix series, published by Image Comics from 2001 to 2002.

The joy of seeing their work in print was coupled with the frustration of finding out a harsh reality in the industry.

“Right off the first issue, we had MIT (Massachusetts Institue of Technology) copying our work,” said Ray Lai.

Professor Edwin L. Thomas said he unknowingly used an image from the brothers in a research proposal about the soldier of the future in 2002.

He published an apology on MIT’s site after speaking to the brothers.

“If I had known it was your work, I would not have used it,” he wrote. “MIT strongly supports the rights of creators and greatly regrets using the image without permission or credit. I am very sorry that this occurred; it won’t happen again.”

Thomas explained in his apology that his team decided to include a drawing of what a soldier of the future might look like and included one of the Lai brothers’ characters.

“I didn’t know until after your attorney contacted MIT at the end of April that the image apparently was based on your character,” Thomas said.. As soon as we heard about that, I had it removed from the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology web pages, notified all of those involved not to use the image for any purpose, and MIT also ordered the image removed from all MIT web sites.”

Shortly after the MIT scandal, the brothers were fired by Marvel, where they worked for around a year before returning to Montreal to work on their own comics.

When the brothers saw the poster for Ironman 3, Ray said they immediately recognized their work.

“Right off the bat, I said, Well, that’s, that’s a copy,” said Ray. “And, the interesting thing is, we do know a lot of the people that were at Marvel.”

Ray and Ben had worked with many of the designers who worked on the films, and also that Marvel knew about the MIT case, further fueling their desire to ensure their work was defended.

“When they hired us, they knew MIT copied us,” said Lai. “So now they’re copying us again.”

Further films featuring Ant-Man and The Wasp are also part of the brothers’ case. 

Original images from the Ant-Man comic series (left) then one from the Lai brothers’ Radix series (middle) and images from Marvel’s Endgame and Ant-Man and the Wasp (right) are the source of a copyright infringement case before the courts. (Court document)

After cases were dismissed in the U.S., the Lai brothers filed suit in Quebec Superior Court.

All claims have yet to be proven in court.

The Quebec law firm representing Disney/Marvel, Robic, did not respond to multiple CTV News requests for comment. Marvel is defending the lawsuit in court.

‘No point in creating if you cannot protect’

For the Lai brothers, the exhausting legal proceedings, though frustrating, are worth going through.

“I think, even back in the day when MIT copied us, the important thing that I thought is there was no point in creating if you cannot protect your intellectual property because that is the most important thing,” said Ray. “It’s great to be an artist, it’s great to put stuff out there and people can appreciate it, but if you cannot protect your work.”

The original comic book version of The Wasp (left), Horizon’s Radix comic design (centre), and Marvel’s design for the ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ film. (Court document)

The same is true for the company the Lai brothers are suing.

Marvel filed suit against four artists for copyright interests in Iron Man, Ant-Man and Captain Marvel, and resolved the suit in 2023.

“They own their intellectual property, and they’ll do everything in their power to protect it,” said Ray Lai. “And if we cannot protect it, then there’s no point in just doing work so that other people can take advantage of it… I think that’s, that’s why it’s just a big part of being a creator.” 

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