A PYMNTS Company

Spider-Man Meets Antitrust Man

 |  February 2, 2010

Some stories just cry out for comment; Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and the resultant antitrust issues is certainly one. Comic books are almost sacred to American culture. In fact, if you’re a member of the baby boomer generation and still have a few original issues, comic books may be funding your retirement. But more importantly, comic books heroes can’t be brought down to earth by mundane discussions of money or, horrors, lawyers. Comic book heroes are the stuff of fantasy: the imaginary heroes children bring to the forefront to fight bullies; the fond childhood memories adults use to fight their own demons. So why are the hallowed names of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men being sullied by antitrust considerations?

Well, when Disney bought Marvel comics (the company that owns the rights to these characters) they inherited a contract Marvel had with Disney’s arch theme park rival, Universal Studios. This contract gives Universal exclusive rights to use Marvel’s comic book characters, so Superman can not travel from the Universal Studio Resort in Orlando over to the Magic Kingdom for another 15 years or so. I’m sure that Disney included this problem in their pricing consideration; and, frankly, there’s a little something jolting about visualizing the Incredible Hulk and Cinderella parading arm-in-arm down the main street of Fantasyland.

But the kicker is that this same contract gives Disney certain rights over Universal, allowing Disney to audit Universal Orlando’s books, (to validate the amount of royalties) and the right to review any promotional material Universal issues with these characters. And since Universal and Disney control over 90% of the theme park revenue in the area, this option opens the door to all sorts of possible accusations about what Disney and Universal can do with this shared information — price fixing, collusion?

To keep the Justice Department happy when the Disney-Marvel merger occured, Disney and Universal signed an agreement in which corporate Disney promised not to share with its theme-park division any of the confidential details it might learn about Universal Orlando. In fact, the agreement specifically precludes the Disney Co. from providing Walt Disney World or Walt Disney Parks and Resorts with any confidential information about Universal Orlando that could be used “for anticompetitive purposes.”

To quote Professor Randy Picker from the University of Chicago, “I take it they’re trying to get a feel for how this pretty complicated relationship is going to work. Situations like this are incredibly tricky.”

And they’re especially tricky when you remember that Spider Man can climb over any information firewall there is.