Geek Trivia: Why (and how) did the real-life US government rule that the fictional X-Men aren't human?

Why did a real-life court of US law rule that mutants like the X-Men are definitively non-human -- ironically fulfilling the villainous role that the X-Men's comic book adventures always predicted?

For you lawyers out there, go look up the 2003 decision Toy Biz, Inc. v United States, where you'll find that the U.S. Court of International Trade ruled that the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man are all non-human. This is pretty strange, and not just because neither Spider-Man nor the Fantastic Four are mutants -- they're human beings granted superpowers via a radioactive spider bite and cosmic rays, respectively.

At the time, Toy Biz was the toy manufacturer that owned Marvel Comics. The former bought the latter in part because they wanted to create and sell action figures based on Marvel properties without paying royalties. Those action figures were manufactured in China and imported to the United States, subjecting them to import tariffs. For reasons defying common sense, toys categorized as "dolls" -- defined as realistic toy depictions of human beings -- faced higher tariffs than all other toys under US law. Thus, Toy Biz went to court to argue that the X-Men, and every other superpowered character, were decidedly non-human, and thus toy versions of said super-beings were most assuredly not dolls. (Hey, at least the prejudice wasn't mutant-centric, for once.)

The court agreed, though the ruling was rather arbitrary about which characters were inhuman and which weren't (and no, there's no evidence that the Marvel superteam known as The Inhumans was specifically cited). The X-Men weren't dolls, but the mutant villain Silver Samurai was. As such, the X-Men toys were just toys, and could be imported more cheaply.

While the tariff law has since been revised to eliminate the distinction between toys and dolls, there is nonetheless case law on the books holding that some mutants (and most superhumans) are less than human. That's the sort of precedent our future mutant overlords (whom I, for one, welcome) are not apt to take lightly.

That's not just some laughable legal legerdemain, it's an iconically ironic inkling of Geek Trivia.

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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...