Marvel Comics vs. Iron Man--UPDATE (5/1)
A fascinating legal skirmish erupts as Marvel tries to shut down an unauthorized early screening of Iron Man. Marvel is, as one might expect, policing the use of its marks & copyrighted material by a commercial enterprise--in this case, TechCrunch, which was using the show as a way to build goodwill with its readers.
One major concern is no doubt security. If you've ever been to an early screening, you know the drill: hand over you cel phone; submit to a cavity search; waterboard interrogation, etc. The TechCrunch screening would probably have little-to-none of that, creating a serious possibility of pirated copies, cel phone excerpts or spoiler-filled reviews hitting the web before opening day.
Whoever decided to authorize an early screening without looping in Marvel, the company that made the movie, was not thinking. The 2005 distribution agreement between Marvel and Paramount provides, in article 10, that "Marvel shall be meaningfully consulted on the release pattern and distribution pattern" of the film; Article 7 also requires Marvel to be consulted for all commercial co-promotions and tie-ins. That the screening was apparently arranged through Paramount's group sales department will probably have behind-the-scenes ramifications; this incident does give the impression that Paramount is something of a loose cannon, with few if any internal controls at the local level.
The theater's current stance--defying Marvel--also creates some interesting possibilities going forward. Your desire to see Iron Man first aside, would you trust your properties to companies that consider themselves free to disregard a studio's express directives?
UPDATE: The screening is back on. The lack of coordination with Marvel was clearly an issue, as was the cross-promotion with TechCrunch, which beyond the mere fact of its existence gave rise to a conflict with a Paramount subcontractor. Read all the comments and you'll see that behind the apology and concise final explanation things had indeed gotten rather intense, with a wide range of legal issues being raised--as Arrington (of TC) notes, if his lawyers hadn't gotten involved the screening would have been canceled. The resolution allays what was turning into a PR nightmare, but we can expect for the future that all such events like this will be pre-cleared and cross-checked.
For organizations faced with similar issues, Marvel's crisis management strategy illustrates four valuable tactics in dealing with a PR meltdown resulting from a legal dust-up:
Acceptance: Sometimes in trying to prevent a suboptimal result you can create an equally, if not worse suboptimal situation. You can treat the unexpected consequence as irrelevant, or you can accept it as a fact and patch around it. That's what Marvel PR did: it let the screening go on, allaying actual PR damage at serious risk of getting worse.
Deflection: Note the explanation laying the ultimate blame on a local subcontractor's organizational issues. The actual situation was the Marvel team asserting substantive legal claims, yet the public explanation focuses attention on a smaller entity with practical concerns. Then, as we shall see, Marvel PR distinguishes the company from its own legal department. The effect of all of this: to restore Marvel's goodwill by sacrificing entities with whom the fans have no attachment. Clever, no?
Apology: Never underestimate the power of an apology, even if you & others in the team think you were justified. As you can see in the TC comments, Marvel's apology already has some folks seeing Marvel as the good guy & the critics as over-reacting--a response that further illustrates the value of co-ordinating legal action with your PR team.
Self-mockery: As anyone who grew up with Mad Magazine knows, a good way to diffuse criticism is to the liberal use of self-deprecating humor. If you can make an in-joke that makes folks feel like they're connected to you, all the better. From the TechCrunch comments section, here's a model of the form from Marvel's digital PR VP:
Thank you for bringing this situation to our attention. We at Marvel have discovered that the David Althoff who sent the CAD is not the REAL David Althoff, but a SKRULL who has been sent to disrupt the opening of IRON MAN.
You can read all about the SKRULL SECRET INVASION happening now at: http://www.marvel.com/comics/Secret_Invasion
Please go ahead with your screening. Enjoy the film.
Tony Stark is real pissed and will be dealing with this Skrull personally.
Ira Rubenstein - Executive Vice President, Global Digital Media Group- Marvel Entertainment, Inc. http://www.marvel.com