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We Buy A Superhero: Loophole

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We Buy A Superhero: Loophole

We Buy A Superhero: Loophole

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Christmas tree here.

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: Make a T-shirt and then follow that shirt around the world as it gets made.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: We were Toxie's last owners. She was our pet toxic asset.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

A hundred barrels of crude oil.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Yes, we did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one. We have ignition.

SMITH: Oh, whoa.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh.

SMITH: This is PLANET MONEY Studios from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: PLANET MONEY Buys A Superhero - Issue No. 2. It starts, as do all great sequels, with a highly edited recap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Suitcase full of money.

SMITH: Check.

MALONE: Let them know that we want to buy a superhero.

SMITH: Yep.

MALONE: Doorman.

SMITH: Doorman?

(SOUNDBITE OF COMIC SOUND EFFECTS)

MALONE: Open the door, man.

ALEX SEGURA: I'm confident in my no.

JENNIFER JENKINS: There's a loophole.

ROBERT SMITH AND KENNY MALONE: A loophole?

ARONCZYK: But to find that loophole, the PLANET MONEY team would need a guide - someone who had traveled to another dimension, found their own superhero and lived to tell about it, someone who was having an abnormally loud microphone problem.

GENE LUEN YANG: Yeah. Does the sound - does it still sound too loud?

SMITH: You know, what if you just went back a little bit from your microphone?

YANG: Should I point it away from me? Is that helpful?

SMITH: Oh, wait; what kind of microphone do you have?

ARONCZYK: This is Gene Luen Yang, a comic book artist who had worked for Marvel and DC. He was about to explain to our PLANET MONEY hosts how he found himself longing for a character outside the grasp of the giant companies, a superhero to call his own.

SMITH: This is sounding better.

MALONE: It's good.

OK, Gene, I have a copy of this comic book of yours of this 1940s superhero that you found. It's amazing. But why don't you start by just telling Robert and me how you found this superhero in the first place?

YANG: So years ago, a friend of mine forwarded me this post from a website called Pappy's Golden Age Blogzine, where they highlight these really obscure characters from the golden age of content. And this one particular post was about the Green Turtle, who on the surface is not an awesome character. He's like a Batman rip-off. So he lives in a turtle cave.

SMITH: (Laughter) No way. No way.

YANG: You know, he flies a turtle plane. He wears a turtle-themed costume. He's just not an awesome character. And worse than Batman, he doesn't wear a shirt. Like, he fights crime shirtless, right? He just - he looks really, really goofy.

SMITH: I feel like most people would've just dismissed the shirtless crusader. But there is something else. There is this rumor about the Green Turtle.

MALONE: The Green Turtle was created by an artist named Chu Hing. And the story goes that Chu Hing wanted to draw the Green Turtle as a Chinese American superhero. It would've been groundbreaking. This was the 1940s. Virtually every superhero was white.

SMITH: But this was the 1940s. The comic book company said no way.

YANG: So Chu Hing - I mean, he just - he reacts a way a comic book artist would react when they hit, like, a road bump. He just gets super passive-aggressive. So he draws these early Green Turtle comics so that you never - you almost never see his face. There's, like, a shadow over his face or there's a piece of furniture blocking his face. Something is getting in the way of you looking at his face. And the rumor is that Chu Hing did this so that both he and his reader could imagine this character as a Chinese American, as he originally intended.

MALONE: Gene became obsessed with the Green Turtle. The character had only appeared in five issues of Blazing Comics back in 1944, not long enough to get a proper backstory or resolution. And Gene thought to himself, I could revive this character. I could fill out that story. I could make it clear once and for all that this was a Chinese American superhero.

SMITH: The question, of course, was who even owns this character in the first place? More importantly, who's going to show up to sue me? Gene starts to talk to lawyers, searches old copyright records from the Library of Congress.

YANG: It's all the stuff that, like, comic book artists are not good at. We're not good at money. We're not good at legal stuff. Like, most of the time I'm thinking about, you know, what is the next, like, genetic mutated monster that Lex Luthor is going to launch at Superman.

SMITH: But what Gene learned was that the Green Turtle lived in a strange dimension of the legal universe. The copyright had lapsed. No one owned the Green Turtle anymore, which meant that Gene had as much right as anyone else to redraw him because the Green Turtle had entered into the public domain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Our quest for a PLANET MONEY superhero continues. We had the front door - man - slammed in our face, man. But Gene Luen Yang has found a loophole we can squeeze through.

MALONE: Today on the show, we travel through the cracks in time and space and copyright law to find a character like the Green Turtle that even the Marvel empire has left behind.

SMITH: And what we find is a lost superhero that feels like it was made just for us, for PLANET MONEY, from 80 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Why don't we start by just checking out this weird afterlife of intellectual property known as the public domain?

SMITH: The public domain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: We've talked about this strange land on PLANET MONEY before, about how entire books can fall into the public domain - or songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

MALONE: Hey, I guess we're allowed to play that song now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

SMITH: This is where creative works go when their copyright expires. And just like books and songs, it can happen to characters, too.

MALONE: Look, Robert; it's Jay Gatsby talking to Lady Macbeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Lady Macbeth) Out. Out, damned spot.

SMITH: And there - there's who Gene was looking for. The Green Turtle, what's up?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Green Turtle) Hey, guys.

SMITH: Gene says hi, wants to use you in a comic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Green Turtle) Nice.

SMITH: To pluck an old vintage character like the Green Turtle from the public domain solves quite a few problems for our superhero quest. Despite all of you, our listeners, tweeting all week at Marvel to #openthedoorman, we have not heard back from Marvel, and we never will. We have to move on, Kenny. We got to move on.

MALONE: Many of you suggested that we could move on by maybe drawing our own - how should we say? - homage to the Doorman, Sliding Doorman...

SMITH: Sure.

MALONE: ...Pet Doorman, perhaps.

SMITH: Or the very well-dressed Christian Diorman.

MALONE: But it's just not the same to make up a new superhero. Superheroes are our modern Greek or Roman gods, like, featured in these stories about right and wrong. They get passed down to us from before we were born. It's the patina and the provenance of a superhero that make it feel real. So we're not just going to draw one, make one up.

SMITH: OK. But if old, vintage superheroes are like gold, how many Green Turtles could really be out there, superheroes that fell into the public domain? We reckon only one person has the answer.

JENKINS: My name is Jennifer Jenkins, and I am a clinical professor of law at Duke Law School. And I am also the director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, which just rolls off the tongue.

MALONE: It doesn't, but I'm sure you own the trademark to it, which is great. You know, who else would want that?

JENKINS: You know what? We didn't. We thought that might be a little bit strange if we're the Public Domain Center and we're getting claim rights to the trademark.

MALONE: Jennifer Jenkins practices what she preaches, and she is preaching how our superhero quest is exactly why our country has the public domain.

SMITH: Every great work of art will eventually end up in the public domain. And although we called this show Loophole and we've talked about a loophole, it's not really a loophole. This is not an accident. The copyright system was designed this way to stimulate creativity.

JENKINS: How does it do that? Well, during the copyright term, it gives you exclusive rights. It gives you control. That incentivizes you to create things and put them out there. But after the term ends, it ensures that all that creative raw material is available for future creators, and that stimulates creativity as well. And hopefully it will be stimulating your creativity.

SMITH: And Jennifer says that with this superhero project, we kind of lucked out because of this magical moment in superhero history, the 1940s.

MALONE: In the 1940s, there were two critical things happening in the world of comic books. No. 1 - there was a superhero explosion known as the golden age of comics. We talked about this in Episode 1. Hundreds, thousands of superheroes were being created, and most of them did not take off like Superman or Batman.

SMITH: Which helps us because of reason No. 2. The '40s was part of this special era in copyright history. The lifespan of a normal copyright at that time was relatively short, at least compared to today. It was just 28 years. And then whoever owned the copyright that they took out in the 1940s had to actively file the paperwork to renew it in the 1970s. And, you know, with all the disco and the hot tubs and the cocaine, some small companies understandably spaced out on the need to renew their superheroes.

MALONE: Or more likely, in the 1970s, like, these weird, old, golden age superheroes were not exactly doing gangbusters. So unless you had seen success like Marvel or DC, there may not have been a great business reason to spend money renewing some failed character from your olden days.

JENKINS: Guess what. The commercial lifespan of most creative works, sadly, is not that long. So, you know, the brilliant song that you've been working on, the great thing that I've been writing - it's never going to sell anyway. But even if it does, it might not be selling after 28 years. After 28 years, 85% of works were not renewed, suggesting that the copyright owners did not find it worthwhile.

SMITH: What this means is that the Green Turtle isn't that rare after all. There are plenty of golden age superheroes whose copyrights weren't renewed after 28 years and are now in the public domain. These superheroes are fair game, ready for anyone to pull them out of obscurity.

MALONE: And this is exactly what we need to do to get a real, authentic vintage PLANET MONEY superhero. We need to go dumpster diving through the annals of comic book history.

SMITH: And Jennifer says we don't even have to look that hard.

JENKINS: All of these fans of these old comic books and these old superheroes have actually done the legwork of exhuming, finding, digging up characters and saying, hey, here's our favorite list of public domain comic book characters. I would probably start there.

SMITH: And to help us, Jennifer sent us some of the lists these fans had pulled together.

MALONE: So this is one of the websites you sent me, Jennifer. I just want to say there are 3,368 characters collected on this website that Jennifer sent.

JENKINS: I'm not vouching for this. This is just the first thing that came up on Google.

MALONE: Fair enough.

SMITH: Now, all we have to do is narrow it down just a bit from 3,368 choices.

MALONE: It's a lot. But, look; Gene Luen Yang was able to do this...

YANG: I remember going to sleep thinking about the Green Turtle, wanting to fill out his origin story.

MALONE: ...And succeed - like, he wrote the Green Turtle a brand-new origin story. And in this new version, there was no question this was a Chinese American superhero.

SMITH: Also no question - the Green Turtle's still shirtless - very hunky muscles.

MALONE: That's right. And in 2014, he was able to legally publish this new story in a graphic novel called "The Shadow Hero," drawn by Sonny Liew.

YANG: I did the writing, and Sonny, an amazing artist, did all of the illustrations.

MALONE: It's very good. The illustrations are very good.

YANG: He's so good, right?

MALONE: It gives me hope, Robert, that the PLANET MONEY superhero is out there somewhere just waiting to be discovered like the Green Turtle. And Gene - he gave us some advice on finding the perfect superhero for us in a list of thousands.

YANG: I think it's kind of like falling in love, right? Like, how do you know when you fall in love? I do think you don't go for the cool. I really do think that cool gets in the way of that heart connection that you might have with one of these characters. I really think it's that combination of goofiness and idealism. You want a goofy expression of an ideal.

MALONE: That's good. I mean, that is succinct and boiled down. I mean, like...

SMITH: That's great.

MALONE: ...That's a thing we can go hunting for right now - or go hunting for after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: All right, I'm going to pull up this list of 3,000 characters allegedly in the public domain.

SMITH: All right. Somewhere in here is our PLANET MONEY superhero.

MALONE: It's in alphabetical order.

SMITH: OK.

MALONE: Ace of Blades.

SMITH: I don't like it.

MALONE: I got Airboy.

SMITH: Airboy sounds like a brand of mattress.

MALONE: OK. Arson Fiend.

SMITH: (Laughter) Arson Fiend? OK. Oh, man.

MALONE: Yeah, OK. This is going to take forever. Blargo the Lawless.

SMITH: No.

MALONE: Blooperman.

SMITH: No.

MALONE: Captain 3D.

SMITH: I thought we're all 3D.

MALONE: Horned Hood. Electric Ray.

SMITH: Next.

MALONE: Electro Man. Impossible Man. Express Man.

SMITH: They all sound so bad.

MALONE: Lava Man.

SMITH: Ooh, Futuro.

MALONE: No.

SMITH: Futuro.

MALONE: No. Lava Man, right.

SMITH: (Unintelligible) Man.

MALONE: No.

SMITH: Menthor.

MALONE: What are we doing?

SMITH: (Singing) Kid Eternity.

MALONE: No. Kangaroo Man - no. Like, no, right? No.

SMITH: No way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: This is like going through Tinder for superheroes. It's like swipe left, left, left, weird costume, terrible superpowers, shirtless, left, left.

MALONE: So, OK, let's just keep going. Let me throw this one past you. This one, Robert, I have high hopes for. Let me just - I'm just going to share him with you on my screen.

SMITH: All right. There's a guy. It looks like he has sort of a hood and two little...

MALONE: Yes.

SMITH: ...Things over his eyes and, like...

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Something on his face. It's sort of - he's got, like, a weird evil executioner vibe.

MALONE: He looks a little scary. I will give you that. He's a good guy, though. He's not an executioner. The mask he's wearing is his superpower. And just listen to what this thing does, Robert. OK, No. 1 - those weird things on his eyes, those are photoelectric eyes. He can see through things.

SMITH: OK. Yeah.

MALONE: OK. The little bumps on his ears that you see there - super hearing. He can, like, hear things from far away.

SMITH: All right.

MALONE: Great, right?

SMITH: Yeah.

MALONE: OK. And then the thing over most of his face - mouth, nose - that is a giant microphone.

SMITH: Oh.

MALONE: The superpower is a giant microphone face mask.

SMITH: So his, like, voice is really loud.

MALONE: He can make his voice really loud. He can, like, throw his voice like a ventriloquist. He can disguise his voice. He can make himself sound like other people. He can, like, generate, like, surround sound and, like, freak out criminals and, like, chaos can ensue.

SMITH: (Laughter) He's got the power of audio processing...

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: ...In his face.

MALONE: Yes. He is functionally like a little one-man broadcaster. Like, that is his superpower.

SMITH: It's unique.

MALONE: It's unique. It's unique, right?

SMITH: It's unique.

MALONE: And here - I want you to open this other link.

SMITH: OK.

MALONE: He's not in very many comic book appearances, but the ones he's in are all online - you know, public domain and all. And I just want you to take a look at this panel here. And we can get a sense of how his, like, supersonic hearing works.

SMITH: OK. In this panel, he's in an alleyway. He's looking for a bad guy. And there's the sound of footsteps way off in the distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SMITH: And then he says...

MALONE: (As Micro-Face) My micro-hearing brings the sound of running feet. It is Eddie Torpedo (ph). There he is ahead.

SMITH: This is very useful. I myself have spent much of my career recording footsteps and then boosting up the volume level in the mix.

MALONE: Who among us, Robert? Who among us? Later in the comic, though, we finally get to see the big gun - or rather, I should say, the big microphone.

SMITH: On his face.

MALONE: Yeah. We get to see what his face mic can do.

SMITH: There's this gang of gun-toting goons, and we hear our hero say...

(As Micro-Face) I'll throw real fear into these punks.

MALONE: Then he uses his face microphone to broadcast the sound of a police whistle.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

MALONE: But it's not just a loud whistle. He can make it like surround sound, so these bad guys now think they're surrounded by cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

SMITH: The goons lose it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As goon) Cop whistles? There's a whole squad.

MALONE: Chaos ensues. Our hero prevails. And, Robert, I love him. I love him so much. He listens. He then edits audio. He confuses people with his microphone.

SMITH: He is a podcaster. He's literally a podcast superhero...

MALONE: (Laughter) Yes.

SMITH: ...From 1943.

MALONE: This is the PLANET MONEY superhero. We can, like, re-imagine his backstory. We can update the creepy mask. We can give him cool audio powers.

SMITH: We can write a new comic book. We can do a T-shirt or, you know, action figures, a USB microphone face mask so you can podcast with his mask.

MALONE: The possibilities are endless.

SMITH: And now, all we have to do is introduce him to the world - amplified, of course, maybe a little bit of reverb, little compression on there. And he steps out in front of the PLANET MONEY audience, and he says...

MALONE: (As Micro-Face) I am Micro-Face.

SMITH: That's Micro-hyphen-Face.

MALONE: His face is totally normal-sized, just to be clear.

SMITH: But that's his name, Micro-Face. It's just a microphone on the face.

MALONE: Face, yeah.

SMITH: You get it.

MALONE: You get it.

SMITH: Yeah.

MALONE: OK.

(As Micro-Face) I am Micro-Face.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: And so, until he is needed, the PLANET MONEY superhero waits quietly. Wherever there is evil, he hears it. Whenever there is a call for justice, he amplifies it. Across all spectrums, the microphone broadcasts a message of hope. Never fear, for Micro-Face is here.

SMITH: Next time on PLANET MONEY Buys A Superhero, we assemble a team - a team of the world's best comic book writers, artists, letterers - the people who do the little letters in the bubbles - and we turn them loose on Micro-Face.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I mean, I have experience with some pretty - you know, no offense, but pretty dumb golden age heroes.

MALONE: (Laughter).

That's next Friday - same micro-time, same micro-place. Just to be clear, it's a normal-sized time and place.

SMITH: Yeah, it's just a microphone.

MALONE: Microphone.

SMITH: We're going to use a microphone.

MALONE: Yeah, that's right.

If you would like to support PLANET MONEY, you could check out our PLANET MONEY animal spirits T-shirt. It is back in the NPR store. That is shop.npr.org/planetmoney. And I will just say, maybe keep an eye on that shop over the next couple weeks - just keep an eye.

SMITH: Something's coming.

MALONE: You can catch us on all the social media - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok. We are @planetmoney.

SMITH: If you want more strange tales from that other dimension known as the public domain, Jennifer Jenkins has co-written two comic books, "Tales From The Public Domain." They are both, of course, free online.

This episode was produced by James Sneed with help from Maria Paz Gutierrez, engineering help from Gilly Moon. The show is edited by Liza Yeager. Bryant Urstadt edits the whole show, PLANET MONEY. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.

MALONE: I'm Micro-Face.

SMITH: No, I'm Micro-Face. Wait a minute; we're all Micro-Face because this is NPR. Thanks for listening.

MALONE: Listening.

SMITH: Listening.

MALONE: Listening. I think we have our catchphrase.

SMITH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: His catchphrase is thanks for listening. His second catchphrase is support your local NPR station.

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