Look! It’s a blog! It’s a book! It’s The Law of Superheroes!

Alumnus's Book Expands on Blog Exploring Legal Issues through Comic Book Scenarios  

 It’s not easy being Superman. Say you want to impress on-again, off-again love interest Lana Lang with a gift. As the Man of Steel, you grab a lump of coal and use your superpowers to condense it into a diamond.

Great—but now the question is, “Does someone have to pay tax on that?”

That’s the kind of legal quandary considered in the new book, The Law of Superheroes. Penned by law school alumnus James Daily, MS ’07, JD ’08, and his “partner in crime fighting” and fellow attorney Ryan Davidson, The Law of Superheroes condenses three years of law school into one fun-to-read—yet very informative—book. The IPLS will be hosting Daily for a book signing at noon on Nov. 20 in the Jordan Foundation Classroom (AB Hall, No. 204).

While they toil by day in the “real world” as an attorney with the Stanford University Hoover Institution Project on Commercializing Innovation (Daily) and an associate at Suedhoff Kalamaros
LLP (Davidson), by night the two lawyers run a popular blog, lawandthemultiverse.com, that explores legal issues through comic-book scenarios.

As they do on the blog, in the book Daily and Davidson use comic-book story lines and images to explore constitutional law, criminal law, evidence, criminal procedure, tort law and insurance, contracts, business law, administrative law, travel and immigration, international law, and intellectual property.

The book is also a “who’s who” of the comics “multiverse,” with stories about not only Superman, but also heroes and villains like Green Lantern, Black Bolt, Captain Marvel, and Dr. Doom filling its pages.

Obviously, Daily and Davidson love comics, but what makes the genre suitable for legal analysis?

“Comic book stories are ideal,” they write, “because their longevity has given them the opportunity to cover a variety of legal situations that most other works simply don’t reach. . . . These situations hold up remarkably well under legal scrutiny, which is a testament to the ingenuity of their authors, who have created such enormous yet cohesive and consistent worlds.”

In addition, they argue that the popularity of comics and the fact that comic-book characters are well known insure that their book is anything but “boring”—the usual criticism lodged at law books.

Consider the way they analyze Superman’s tax issue. First, they write that there are two issues—is the diamond taxable income for Superman, and is the diamond taxable income for Lana Lang?

They appear to dispense with the first question quickly. “It seems clear that improving the value of the carbon by turning it from coal to a diamond is not ... a taxable event, since there is neither a sale nor disposition of the
property,” they write.

But wait—there’s more!

If the diamond was given as a gift, “gifts are generally not taxable income for the recipient.” However, “there is a gift tax that is ordinarily paid by the giver”—though Daily and Davidson note that there is an exclusion for gifts “that currently stands at $13,000 per recipient per year.”

The authors assert that “the diamond given to Lana Lang appears to be about 3.5-4 carats and of very good quality” (we’ll take their word for it), resulting in a potential bill to Superman of “as much as $70,800.”

Is all hope lost for our hero? No, because Superman could simply give Lana Lang the lump of coal and then turn it into a diamond.

“This works because the gift tax only applies to ‘the transfer of property,’ and the gratuitous rendering of services is not taxed,” they reason. “There are few ways in the real world to transform essentially worthless material into something extremely valuable with little effort, so the tax code doesn’t bother trying to tax gratuitous services. In short, this is a tax loophole for Superman!”

Whew!

As the Superman-Lana Lang saga and their carefully documented footnotes demonstrate, Daily and Davidson clearly are not kidding around; however, they do have some fun with the captions to the dozens of comic-book images that illustrate their work.

For example, one panel shows the member nations of the United Nations honoring Superman with “honorary citizenship in all their countries.

“This may solve his immigration problems,” Daily and Davidson write about the tights-wearing superhero, “but where is he going to keep those 193 passports?”

The Law of Superheroes also accomplishes the difficult feat of reading like the work of one very knowledgeable author instead of two. Daily says part of that is due to the book’s origins in the blog both he and Davidson contribute to, and part of it is due to their process in writing the book.

“We each have our own specialties, so we divided the chapters between the two of us. Then we would swap chapters, make revisions, give it back to the original author, and go back and forth with it,” Daily says, adding that his law school training also played an important role in writing the book.

“Good research and writing skills were essential to this project,” he says. “Often it was important to go from zero to sixty on a given topic, so I had to be very efficient with my research before coming to a conclusion I could feel confident about.”

Equally important, Daily says, was maintaining objectivity and sticking closely to the law.

“We were careful not to take strong normative positions even when dealing with politically charged topics,” he says. “In my intellectual property work for Stanford, I often take normative positions, but it’s not helpful in the blog or
the book because while there are things Ryan and I sometimes disagree on, arguing about it doesn’t help people understand how the law works.”

In true comic-book fashion, the final chapter—“Artificial Intelligence”—leaves the door open for a sequel by raising questions like “If an Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a legal person, then is deleting it tantamount to murder? What about
simply turning it off? If an AI is copied onto another computer against the computer owner’s wishes, is the owner nonetheless required to maintain the computer in perpetuity? What if an AI spreads itself like a virus?”

Daily and Davidson conclude: “As computers become increasingly sophisticated one thing seems certain: of all the outlandish legal issues in this book, these are probably the ones most likely to come up in the real world.”

By Timothy J. Fox