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MIT Used Comic Art For Grant Proposal

By Dan Cho

STAFF REPORTER

In competing for its $50 million nanotechnology research grant from the U.S. Army last winter, MIT used an allegedly pirated comic book image without crediting the original artists.

A cartoon image used in MIT’s proposal and subsequent publicity efforts appears to be copied from illustrations in Radix, a comic book created by two brothers in Montreal who recently decried MIT’s actions publicly.

The image in question depicts an armor-clad female soldier holding two weapons. The figure’s equipment and stance are almost identical to the character on a cover of Radix. The city-scape background of MIT’s image also bears a striking resemblance to those found in Radix. The image distributed by MIT was later widely-circulated in national newspapers and other media when MIT was awarded the $50 million grant last March to create the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology.

Ray Lai, who created Radix with his brother, Ben, said he began to receive phone calls in April from fans informing him that his work was being used to accompany news articles about MIT’s new research grant.

The image was credited to an “H. Thomas” in MIT news releases. Edwin L. Thomas, a professor in Materials Science and Engineering and director of the new lab, told the Web site CNET.com in a March interview that the image was drawn by his daughter. He also said that the illustration was based on his descriptions of the proposed new technologies to her.

Edwin Thomas could not be reached for comment.

Artists confront Institute

Upon learning of the alleged infringement, the Lai brothers consulted an attorney, who sent a letter to MIT requesting that it cease and desist all reproduction of the cartoon. Though MIT stopped distributing the image, the Institute denied that its use of the image infringed on the rights of the comic creators.

“Neither MIT’s limited use, nor the subsequent news reports, had any effect upon the potential market for or value of the image,” wrote an attorney representing MIT in a response to the Lai brothers’ request. The letter also stated that MIT’s use of the image was legally protected because the image was used for non-profit purposes.

Lai, however, said that his comic book’s reputation was negatively affected by MIT’s actions.

“We’re trying to sell something as fantasy, and MIT’s using the image saying this is real,” Ray Lai said.

Lai also said that several comic readers have mistakenly accused him of copying the image from MIT.

Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for Horizon Comics, the publisher of Radix, said that the comic book has ceased publication since April because of “clouded issues of ownership” arising from MIT’s use of the soldier image.

“It’s really sad. These guys spent seven years developing this comic book,” Farmelant said. “They’re afraid the same thing could happen again.”

At this time, neither the Lai brothers nor Horizon Comics are planning any legal action against MIT. Lai told The Tech yesterday that he would like an apology, public credit from MIT for the illustration, and a promise that MIT would never use his work again without giving proper credit.

“As an artist, your work is who you are,” Lai said in a press release from Horizon Comics. “Everybody knows you don’t put your name on somebody else’s work. If I went to MIT and did that, I would be thrown out of school.”

Cartoon did not help proposal

Yesterday afternoon, MIT issued a statement saying that “MIT strongly supports the rights of creators and MIT regrets the use of an image that was apparently derived from another source.” MIT also said again that it did not violate copyright law and that its nanotechnology grant was awarded on the technical merits of MIT’s proposal.

A spokeswoman from the Army confirmed that the grant decision was based on the substance of the proposal.

MIT beat out Cornell, Caltech

The U.S. Army awarded MIT the $50 million grant to develop new materials to equip the soldiers of the future. Several universities including Cornell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the California Institute of Technology competed for the Army grant. The nanotechnology institute will focus on technologies that could one day allow its users to absorb bullet impacts without harm, make 20 -foot high leaps, and become invisible, among other things.

Radix was first conceived by Ray and Ben Lai in 1995 and published its first issue in December 2001. The fictional characters in Radix possess abilities similar to those envisioned for soldiers.