I want to develop an android game containing Marvel or DC characters, and publish it to Google Play.
Do Marvel or DC have copyright on their characters? If so, can that affect whether I can publish my game to Google Play?
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No, you can not include Marvel and DC characters in your game1. Yes, Marvel and DC both copyright their characters. No, you can not copy them without extreme risk of gross legal repercussions, and Yes, this will affect how your game is received by Google via the Play Store.
Marvel and DC characters are both protected under copyright protection. If you use their characters in your game, they are completely within their right to sue the pants off you. I am not a lawyer, but can confidently say they will succeed.
You also have to consider the fact that they have a lot more money to work with, in regards to legal expenditure. Marvel are owned by Disney, and DC are owned by Warner Bros.
To give a clear example, Marvel sued NCSoft over their MMO franchise "City of Heroes / City of Villains". The claim was that the character customisation allowed players to make variations of the copyrighted heroes - to my knowledge, the developers were not even accused of straight out copying the characters. While it is said that this case worked out in favour of NCSoft, they still had to pay out. Marvel simply lost a majority of their claims, as NCSoft were able to proove that many of the "infringements" were in fact created by Marvel employees, themselves. At the end of the day, they still settled, and they still had to pay out.
Copyright infringement is also listed as a reportable violation on Google Play. At best, they will take your game down. At worst, they will block your account from further publishing, and may even notify the original authors to further pursue the matter.
If you first gain permission to use the characters, there should be no problem. This is still a massive road block - were talking intellectual property that is worth millions, if not billions, of dollars. It is highly unlikely that either company would even consider entering into consideration of signing such a contract with anyone but a AAA company. It is even more unlikely that anyone other than a AAA company could even begin to afford the potential licensing costs.
I am a AAA developer! Where do I start?
The simple fact is, if you were a AAA developer, you would not be coming here to ask a legal question. You would be asking your legal team. If you really want to entertain this idea, consult a lawyer. It is worth noting that Activision had an exclusive deal2 with Marvel, and that Disney terminated this deal. After announcing the discontinuation of the Disney Infinity franchise, Disney are now pursuing Marvel as a licensing opportunity, so they do entertain the idea of licensing their characters to other game developers. I can find no evidence that Warner Bros. entertain licensing their characters, but there is certainly no developer exclusive contract.
As a final note, it is worth considering the obvious. If you want some good characters for your game, it is going to be significantly less expensive to simply pay a designer to make the characters for you. You should still consult a lawyer, in regards to this. Such contracts need to be watertight, to ensure both parties have the rights they interpret. For example, there is a difference between paying for an artist to make a series of characters for you to use in your game and paying an artist to make a series of characters that you then own, to use in future games and representations.
1 Technically, the answer is *"Yes you can, if you want Marvel or DC to sue you for everything your worth, and your not worried about being banned from the Google Play Store, as a developer.
2 In an exclusive contract, the game developer may pay more; but they are buying the only rights to those characters. For the entire length of the contract, the original owners may not sell or offer license to any other developer.