Friday, June 18, 2010

Spider-Man Is Among the Most Wanted; New York Times, 6/17/10

Marc Lacey, New York Times; Spider-Man Is Among the Most Wanted:

"Spider-Man has successfully taken on the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and Venom, to name just a few of his foes over the years, but the web-spinning superhero was no match for Mexico’s federal police, who recently manhandled him and easily took him into custody.

Many piñata vendors duplicate popular children’s characters, but some companies want them to pay to do so.

In a crackdown on pirated piñatas some months ago, officials from the attorney general’s office and the federal police seized more than 100 of the papier-mâché party accessories, Spider-Man prime among them, and took into custody several real-life piñata vendors as well. The authorities said the raid was a response to a complaint filed by Marvel Entertainment, which owns the rights to the characters in question. Hulk, another Marvel character, was also overwhelmed by the men in black that day, as was Captain America.

But the story line got a twist when it turned out that the raid might have been as questionable as the piñatas that were seized. The attorney general’s office said it had no record of Marvel’s calling for such an operation, which existing law required before a raid could be conducted, and the company insists it had nothing to do with it. Federal officials later said that it was Televisa, a Mexican television conglomerate, that filed the complaint that led to the raid.

Whatever the raid’s provenance, the lawyer assisting the vendors, Fidel López García, said that it appeared to have been aimed primarily at extorting money from the vendors and commandeering their wares, not an uncommon event in Mexico. Mr. López and the vendors say that, after seizing thousands of piñatas, the police and the officials not only began selling them on the street but offered to sell them back to the vendors.

A spokeswoman for the Mexican federal prosecutors dismissed the vendors’ accusations about the raid, saying simply, “It wasn’t illegal.”

The piñata roundup created a stir in this city’s piñata-selling zones, where Spider-Man, who goes by the name Hombre Araña here, used to hang out on the sidewalk with Snow White, Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants and Lightning McQueen, to name a few of the popular piñatas awaiting purchase.

After being forced to pay hefty fines of thousands of dollars to the attorney general’s office, some vendors have eliminated Spider-Man from their shops and others have relegated him to the back. It is not as though proprietary characters have disappeared altogether, though. On a recent afternoon, Darth Vader (Lucasfilm Ltd.) was hanging next to Ben 10 (Cartoon Network), and Princess Tiana (Disney) was in close proximity to Thomas the Tank Engine (Gullane (Thomas) Ltd.), Tigger (Disney) and Shrek (DreamWorks Animation).

Piñatas are one small corner of the counterfeiting business, which is flourishing in Mexico. “The statistics don’t lie, and we had to do something because 8 of every 10 people buy counterfeit products, and 54 percent of the products on the market are falsified,” said Arturo Zamora Jiménez, a lawmaker who advocated for a beefed-up antipiracy law that has since been adopted.

Besides depriving the government of tax revenue and siphoning profits from corporations, piracy helps to fuel organized crime, the authorities say. Mexican drug gangs have embraced the business, the government said, trafficking in such things as pirated movies, computer software and apparel.

Critics of the government maintain that only the poor will suffer from any crackdown on counterfeit goods. “Instead of creating jobs, this government pursues people who have made the decision not to join the criminal element and who look for honest work to bring bread to their homes,” said Gerardo Fernández Noraña, an opposition lawmaker.

Standing amid Dora the Explorers, Barneys and Tinker Bells, some piñata sellers said they saw nothing wrong with providing customers with what they wanted, even without permission from a foreign corporation.

A piñata is Mexican,” said Eduardo Bejaramo, a vendor who had been detained in the raid. “It’s just newspaper with paint on it. We’re not copying music or films. We’re doing all this by hand. How can we copy if Marvel does not make piñatas?”

Down the street, another piñata vendor, who declined to be identified out of fear that his comments could prompt a follow-up raid, said he would have to go out of business if he had to pay companies to use their characters.

“Traditionally, Mexican piñatas were made in the shape of stars,” he said, meaning celestial bodies, not celebrities. “But with TV, children began wanting a piñata like what they saw on the screen.”"

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