One of New York City’s most iconic landmarks, the Chrysler Building, was removed for the recent release of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. The building was not only featured in Marvel’s Spider-Man video game from 2018 but has been featured in lots of Marvel media over the past several decades. However, with the building coming under new ownership in 2019, it looks like the Chrysler Building may be making fewer appearances. We talked to a copyright lawyer about the ways buildings are protected by copyright and to developer Insomniac games about why it had to change its version of the New York City skyline.
The Chrysler Building opened on May 27, 1930 and stood as the tallest building in the world until the Empire State Building was completed in May 1931, one mile away. Since its completion, the Chrysler Building has remained not only one of New York City’s most famous skyscrapers, but also one of the most famous skyscrapers in American architecture. The art deco building, which rises to 1,046 feet with 77 floors, is particularly famous for its eight eagles, which protrude from the exterior of the 61st floor.
The structure has also been a staple in Marvel comics, movies, and now games. It is heavily featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Spider-Man animated series, and the various Spider-Man film adaptations and movie posters. In Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4, the Chrysler Building was one of the game’s 47 featured landmarks, which players had to photograph for a side-mission, and was completely recreated for the game’s open-world. But now, if you go to the same location on the map in Miles Morales, you see a nondescript skyscraper. However, in the recent PlayStation 5 remaster of the first Spider-Man, the Chrysler Building is still present.
The Chrysler Building is present in Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered (left) but not in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (right)
Since 2008, the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, an investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government, owned a 90-percent majority of the building with the New York-based real estate investment company Tishman Speyer Properties, which still managed the property despite owning only 10-percent of the building. These two companies were the owners when Insomniac’s first Spider-Man game was released. But in January 2019, a year and a half before the release of Miles Morales, the two parties put the building up for sale, which was co-purchased in March of the same year by the Austrian company SIGNA Group and the New York real estate development company RFR Holding LLC. Interestingly, the building was purchased for $150 million in 2019, down from the reported $300 million ($433 million inflated for 2019) it was purchased for in 2001, and significantly less than the $800 million ($957 million inflated for 2019) Abu Dhabi Investment Council reportedly spent in 2008 for its majority of the building and the retail space next door.
As of 1990, architectural works such as the Chrysler Building can be protected under copyright, no different than other forms of art. According to the United States Copyright Office, an architectural work is defined as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. […] Examples of works that satisfy this requirement include houses, office buildings, churches, and museums. By contrast, the Office will refuse to register bridges, cloverleaves, dams, walkways, tents, recreational vehicles, or boats (although a house boat that is permanently affixed to a dock may be registerable as an architectural work).”
While copyright owners won’t go after a picture you took of a building, they do protect themselves from more obvious infringements, such as another company copying a building’s design for its own purpose, and building owners have, on occasion, gone after companies for copyright-protected architecture on merchandising.
“If you have just a basic box of a building that looks like just a generic building, you can’t go around and sue every building in Manhattan, and say, ‘You have stolen my idea of what a building looks like,'” Michael Lee, the founder of Lee Law, which focuses on brand protection, intellectual property, and influencer law, told Game Informer. “You can’t protect the functionality of something, but you could protect the artistic parts of it. So when it comes to certain architecture, whether it has big spires at the top, or whether it has curved glass, whether you see something and you see that it’s unique and different, that’s absolutely protected by copyright. So in order to reproduce it in either another building or make a derivative work such as a T-shirt, a model, or even putting it in a video game, you need authorization from the copyright owner to reproduce the protected thing – which in this case could be the Chrysler Building.”
The Chrysler Building in New York City
In fact, the Chrysler Building is protected under copyright, and so its owners and IP holders are free to decide whether or not it shows up in a piece of media, like Miles Morales. For whatever reason, SIGNA Group or RFR Holding LLC decided they didn’t want their building to appear in the game, even if the previous owners allowed it. And it’s completely within their rights as the owners of the Chrysler Building, no matter how iconic the building is or if it appeared in a game just two years prior. According to what we heard from Insomniac, the developer did try to get permission, but obviously were not able to.
“When creating our representation of the city we wanted to include as many landmarks as we could to add to the sense of immersion,” James Stevenson, Insomniac’s community director, told Game Informer when asked for comment. “Sometimes negotiations to use those locations didn’t work out, which was the case with the Chrysler Building in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales.“
The Chrysler Building on Spider-Man Remastered’s map (left) and the building missing from Miles Morales’ map (right)
This doesn’t mean that everyone is going to abide by these copyright rules or that the inclusion of a building isn’t protected under fair use. As an example, Lee says that if a movie has a split-second shot of the Empire State Building in the background, it could be argued that’s fair use. Or a company could just be willing to take the risk without getting the proper clearance. On the other hand, doing so could open up a company to a potential lawsuit, which is why a lot of companies have entire teams dedicated to clearing rights for this kind of stuff, Lee says. In the case of Miles Morales, an open-world game where players can climb all over and deeply inspect every single building, as they could with Chrysler in the first Spider-Man, including it with that level of detail without permission would almost assuredly open Insomniac, Marvel, and Sony up to possible litigation.
“You’re up close, you’re looking at it, and the more prominent that use is, the more likely it would be considered to be infringement,” Lee says.
It appears Insomniac didn’t want to take any chances, even if it meant leaving out a prominent part of New York City’s skyline.
For more on Miles Morales, check out our review.