I am in trouble: my boss, a multi-millionaire, has just come up with a scheme, but it has problems and he wants me to solve them.

The whole thing started when he saw this picture: there are 571 billionaires in the US, and not one of them is batman

This gave him an idea: invent, develop, and sell "superpowers". These "powers" would not be biological (he's rich, but not that rich), but technological. Basically, he wants to have Small Hero Five-and-a-half (tm) working for him, constantly cranking out new tech.

After he has his team invent the tech (with possible help from Anderson Robotics), he would start to mass-produce it (think: bat-mobile factory), and sell the gadgets (why sell the rights, when there is still more money to be made?) to would-be super-heroes.

This is where the problems start: the reason no-one has done this yet, is that there isn't really any demand, since super-heroes are just overkill against your average crook. Also there are legal issues, as this tech might result in collateral damage (read: Sokovia).

His solution to this problem is simple: don't only sell to "heroes", instead "losing" some of it, that will later turn up on the black market. Hey presto, we have a demand other than the odd nerd with a fortune.

At this point, I pointed out that a revenue model that depends on having illegal associates isn't really... legal.

How does my boss keep his business running and (mostly) legal without being shut down for H&S reasons?

EDIT: as @shadowzee pointed out, the research might be seized during the R&D phase. My boss says that having the research happening in multiple countries might stop that, but he isn't sure.

EDIT 2: There is a rumour that a lot of people think that my boss either wants to become Batman, or just sell tech that he would have used. This is not true: he wants to develop gadgets that a certain comic-book publishing company that he may or may not own significant shares in may or may not consider giving it's heroes.

Thus, rule of cool is a necessary part of the development process, as well as wow-factor. He isn't selling tazers, or bulletproof vests. He is trying to sell spider-spinners and lightsabers.

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    The realistic answer is he doesn't. The military steam rolls in, takes all his tech, research and manpower, breaks him and wipes his memory off the face of the planet (or hires him). This would of course, happen in the R&D stage, way before you could sell it. You need to be a billionaire to have a chance. – Shadowzee Nov 19 at 6:21
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    @Shadowzee in that case, how might he avoid this happening? – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 6:49
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    This gave him an idea: invent, develop, and sell "superpowers" - Wait... your boss decided to become I̶n̶c̶r̶e̶d̶i̶b̶o̶y̶ Syndrome?? 0_o – J... Nov 19 at 17:59
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    Coming from the title I was kinda disappointed to find out the salesman does not have the super power to sell but instead is "just" selling super powers. But thanks for the inspiration :) – DrCopyPaste Nov 20 at 7:34
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    Ironically, "losing" the equipment would be criminal negligence. Selling it to third party redistributors or to people with "intent to use the product in a way that violates the instructions/safety guides" is perfectly legal though, and shifts the legal problem to the person being sold to. – Tezra Nov 20 at 16:02

12 Answers 12

Your boss has a real problem in this scenario since it’s technically illegal for a person to take the law into their own hands. He or she would face legal challenges regardless of whether they sell to the good guys or the bad. — Instead I would suggest selling to the cops and other law enforcement/ civil service officials.

Why not upgrade the fire fighters for example? Imagine rescue workers in flameproof mech suits rescuing people from the fires in California; or perhaps a park ranger being able to wrestle a bear rather then just shooting it.

The applications are nearly limitless, but your boss should consider applications outside the normal street crime scenario.

That being said, a police force in fully bullet proof mechanized tech armor being able to non-lethally subdue even the most dangerous gunmen would be pretty cool. No doubt this would go a long way to prevent a lot of the shoot-first-ask-questions-later incidents we hear about so much on the news.

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    Don't sell to civil authorities, sell to the US military; heck I suspect that's how a number of those billionaires made their money - selling arms. If you can't beat them join them! – Qwerky Nov 19 at 9:59
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    I like the angle, but how would e.g. law enforcement or firefighters be able to afford power armor? They can barely pay for their current equipment. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Nov 19 at 12:30
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    @RutherRendommeleigh It’s not that there is no money left in the government budget, it’s just that the government decided it could be used more effectively elsewhere. They could get more money from the government if they can present a convincing cost/benefit analysis (spend a few million now, no more shoot-first-ask-later in the next ten years is pretty convincing IMHO). – 11684 Nov 19 at 13:17
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    This answer seems logical to me, but based on how the OP phrased their question, I have the understanding that the ideal end result is the vigilantes, regardless of whether it is legal for them or not. He simply wants to protect his boss from any repercussions. – Onyz Nov 19 at 13:32
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    Oh, you don't have to immediately hurt all those villains. I'm not aware of the US law but in Poland there's something called "civil arrest". If you catch the bad guy in the act you can arrest them on the spot (and artificial spider-web is way cooler to do that than a mere duct tape), then call police and hand the guy to them. – Ister Nov 19 at 15:49

Plausible deniability

Vigilantism is illegal, but our salesman isn't selling to vigilantes, no no.

He is selling self-defense equipment to concerned citizens. If you were assaulted in the street, wouldn't it be nice if you could just run away ... over the rooftops ... on Manhattan?

Other equipment can also be described as self-defense. Tazers, for example, for use on feral dogs only. It is clearly printed on the box that it is not for use against humans. If a customer breaks that rule, shame on the customer.

And that is not a bullet-proof suit, it is an extra sturdy motorcycling suit. Honest!

Laws generally won't forbid things that haven't been invented, so he can usually get away with selling things that aren't illegal, yet.

What people do with his wares is another matter. But isn't that like when somebody gets killed with a hammer? You don't go after the hammer manufacturer.

Your boss probably know some lobbyists too. They can be useful in delaying any laws that would cut into his profit margin.

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    "Laws generally won't forbid things that haven't been invented" - are you sure about that? My country's weapon laws, for example, use intentionally vague language to allow law enforcement to declare pretty much anything a weapon that "stores energy" or "inflicts harm by means other than physical". Graviton beam? Illegal. Exoskeleton? It's a weapon if they want it to be. Drones? Regulated. Aircraft? Doubly so. Cloning? Forbidden in most countries. If you find it in a comic book, it's probably illegal. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Nov 19 at 12:23
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    @RutherRendommeleigh Yeah! AAA batteries are now illegal! – Hosch250 Nov 19 at 19:44
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    @RutherRendommeleigh, relevant on Law SE: What is the point of prohibiting currently impossible things? – Wildcard Nov 19 at 22:12
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    "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" - as long as he makes superhero accessories in the shape of arms, he's within his constitutional rights. Web-throwing Spiderman arms, Batman's grapple hooks... oh yes, Superman uses his dramatically extended arm for flying purposes, so that's OK as well. – IMil Nov 20 at 1:21
  • @Hosch250 Well, I'm kinda glad that AA batteries are still illegal :) – zovits Nov 20 at 17:00

You question is really similar to the problem some manufacturers in our world have to solve to stay in business.

If what you sell will remove competition and thus kill the market, just make sure you supply your product to both sides, so that there will be some sort of balance of power.

This has happened with nuclear bombs during cold war (atomic secrets sold by the very persons working to develop them), it happens on the weapons black market, where both sides of a conflict are supplied with weapons so that weapons merchants can thrive on the conflict. You are just going to be another actor on this stage.

And, at the end of the day, when one comes into your shop asking for a super-thing, how can you tell if is a good or a bad guy?

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    @Tomy-rex, formally no weapon manufacturer sells weapons to war lords and other high profile criminals. Yet I never saw them fighting with stick and stones... You can officially supply your product to the government only, and happen to be "robbed" once in a while, losing track of your product... – L.Dutch Nov 19 at 9:19
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    This seems to be repeating what's already said in the question - sell to the good guys as well as the bad. But how would they go about avoiding being shut down for legal reasons? – NotThatGuy Nov 19 at 9:47
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    @NotThatGuy, it's written in the answer: black market. It already happens for weapons and cigarettes... – L.Dutch Nov 19 at 9:49
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    @jpmc26 It's certainly true that there was espionage in nuclear projects. The idea that this motivated by a desire to spur nuclear proliferation to keep people in the industry employed is a bit shakier, though. – Acccumulation Nov 19 at 20:00
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    @Tomy-rex Ah, but your society absolutely needs a balance of power between government and anti-government forces. History is replete with examples of governments becoming powerful enough to have nothing to fear from their citizens. Corruption sets in quickly, generally followed by extermination orders. The only question here is how blatant the anti-government forces in society can be and still do their job. – Perkins Nov 19 at 23:15

This is something that is actually legal in many areas, so this does not need to be kept hidden

There are a lot of places in the world where citizens are allowed to intervene in criminal activity, usually if they are witnesses of an ongoing crime or if the crime is severe. For example, many states in the US allow citizens to arrest felons if they witness the felony. Most of the types of crime heroes will be up against will probably be of this nature.

Double-dip on the profits by selling insurance to the heroes

Even though their activities may be legal, people still get dragged into court anyway, and sometimes they still get convicted even if they did not break the law. It's all about who has the better lawyers.

So you hire lots of great lawyers, not only for yourself but also to back the insurance you sell to the heroes. You could even insist that your non-black-market sales must be accompanied by a hero insurance plan or you won't make the sale.

Report on the events yourself, forming a small news group if you have to

If you report on the events yourself you can provide whatever spin on the situation you need, as is often done in media anyway. Make sure you have plenty of sensational headlines about your awesome heroes.

Some of your news can come in the form of social media that a billionaire should be able to push to go viral.

Create a network to aid the heroes

This part could come even before you get into the hero business so that it is already established to aid the heroes when you start those sales...

Start a campaign for neighborhood safety, the "neighborhood watch" of the next generation. Make an app for mobile devices that people would want to install to help their area which helps locate crimes. It would be similar to the batman scene in that one movie (sorry, not a batman fan and don't remember which one) where batman is getting data from devices all over an area to help him track people.

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    “Double-dip on the profits by selling insurance to the heroes” - Brilliant! XD – Vladimir Nov 20 at 2:05

There's nothing stopping him putting his money into R&D. Essentially he's just joined the military-industrial complex, and become another arms dealer.

What kind of R&D is he thinking of though? Pretty much every area already has people working there. Either that, or (like Boston Dynamics) it's a neat idea with no market value. So he's always going to be playing catch-up. Most new companies form round a key first product, and he hasn't got one.

And then you have to actually look at whether Batman is practical. Why would you even do that? From a law enforcement PoV he's a disaster. From a military PoV he's one bullet or grenade away from just another corpse, because body armour doesn't stop everything. Rule of Cool doesn't work so well in real life.

He's chosen the wrong hero anyway. The definition of a hero is someone who saves the lives of other people without hoping for reward, right? If you've got that money spare, do something good with it.

No-one remembers Joseph Rowntree for what he did business-wise. Even his company name has gone, since it was bought by Nestle. But his charitable foundation continues to help people, and his name may well live forever.

No-one remembers Henry Wellcome for what he did business-wise either. But the Wellcome Trust is the reason we have gene therapies today, amongst so many other advances. Again, Wellcome's name will never be forgotten.

And more recently, Bill Gates. It doesn't matter whether you like what his company makes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the reason millions of Africans will not die from diseases where the cures were well known but were not profitable for money-led medicine.

In terms of lives saved, Batman doesn't even come close.

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    my boss doesn't care how useful it is. Don't tell anyone, but I think I heard that he has significant shares in a comic-book company, and they asked him for a source of inspiration. Rule of cool helps, if you are involved in the entertainment industry. – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 9:43
  • Also, he's not aiming for Batman level tech. He's aiming at lightsabers. – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 9:45
  • @MarkGardner Then you have a problem that your boss is delusional. The obvious answer is run, don't walk. The less obvious and ethical answer is that since he's looking for things which are not physically possible, he can't object to whatever you want to do, so you may have carte blanche to play with anything you like. Either way, have a quiet word with a journalist, because there's a great story in this, especially if your boss is someone well-known. – Graham Nov 19 at 14:01
  • Not necessarily lightsabers, but things that are a) as cool as lightsabers, and b) beyond the level of tech that the average police station might have. Not necessarily military level, but almost. – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 14:09
  • @MarkGardner If it's "almost" miitary level today, then it's going to be definitely-military-level as of about 10 years ago (or earlier; think Elon Musk's flamethrower). Assuming it has any offensive or defensive utility, of course. And as Elon Musk and the people with 3D-printed guns found out, as soon as you produce something with serious offensive/defensive utility, some very serious men with very serious weapons pay very serious attention to you. Whether you and/or your company will survive that attention is not certain. – Graham Nov 20 at 11:39

Just point to him in the direction of dictionary.

Not one of those losers has decided to become Batman

"Decided to" not "are unable to". We have those "technical superpowers". Gas that can render people unconscious. Electric power that make muscles contract and people are unable to move. Hell, we even have jet powered bullets and non-lethal bullets. And for most of them (in the states) you don't need to be millionaire to have this equipment. You can go to shop and buy them.

In other words your boss want to go into self-defence industry.

  • At this stage, my boss wants flashy, big things that make people think "super hero/villain". Not things that every second family gets. – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 13:40
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    @MarkGardner Still self-defence industry just packaged and marketed as "super hero". Same thing with "military taser" and "soccer mom taser" – SZCZERZO KŁY Nov 19 at 13:45

Well this is world-building so it's a bit ambiguous; it's only illegal if there's a law against it.

And to that end I think the more widely useful your wares are the better. No one would outlaw hammers. It's a strange coincidence that the super-deluxe ultra-hammer 5000 is a great tool for robbing banks, but who would want to live in a world without hammers? Your top-of-the-line model might be a great crime-fighting kit that only millionaires can afford, but the starter model will really help out with your average Joe with his yardwork!

A bit of an aside, but I don't think you have to actually deal in any shady business yourself; if bad guys want your wares they'll come up with a way to get them. You just have to make sure the product doesn't get TOO regulated and studiously point out how you follow the letter of the law. Good PR, loyal fans, and a bit of lobbying are going to help.

  • Regulating, in point of fact, would be more likely to cut into the supply of equipment to heroes than to villains. The number of criminal syndicates in the world that specialize in the wholesale illegal manufacture and distribution of weapons and weapon systems makes for an interesting case study that's rarely discussed. There are even a few legitimate weapon manufacturers at this point that started their existence as illegal manufacturers under the Soviets or similar regimes which have since toppled. – Perkins Nov 19 at 23:31

Move to a more evil-friendly country

When bin Laden was forming al-Qaeda he didn't do this in the US or any other country with piddly things like laws. He did it in countries with weak, ineffective, extremist or corruptible governments.

You don't have to look far to find countries where you could locate your research, development and production lines. Parts of Somalia aren't even really countries right now. They are often ruled by the strongest overlord of the time. Which will be you very soon after setting up shop.

If the malaria and ebola become problematic for your workforce (and your bio-weapon researchers are too busy to make vaccines), you can move to any number of other countries where the government is fully corrupt. Give them a slice of the pie and enjoy immunity for as long as you keep somewhat below the radar.

What you save on taxes, you pay in bribes. Your bottom line remains the same. And with the monstrous amount of profits you will have rolling in soon, buy a large block of land and develop it to western standards for your workforce.

  • My boss will still live somewhere in the west, so I'm afraid that he might be arrested at home. He doesn't plan to break any laws, but his profits depend on his gadgets being used illegally. – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 14:06

You hire a boatload of lawyers along with your boatload of scientists. You spin up shadow corporations, off shore accounts, subsidiaries with subsidiaries, which buy your bankrupted other subsidiaries and take their tech for unknown purposes. You incorporate where the law is malleable and can be bought for a reasonable price.

You do trial and error in lawless areas of the world, places where vigilantism is already the only law.

You check in on public opinion, make minor tweaks, rinse, wash, repeat.

You make sure that you are not traced back to any experiments that went poorly, while having your (also newly hired) boatload of PR people extoll the virtues of all the tech that is working out as intended.

You watch out for any politicians, social organizers, or NGOs that are taking note and starting to watch you more closely. You hire private investigators and hackers to make sure they know their dirty laundry is available and could end up out in the open if they're not careful.

You hire hitmen, and make inconvenient bloggers disappear.

In short, you become a super villain, and eventually your own technology will be used to take you down - if the do-gooders ever figure out it is you behind the whole thing.

But your boss will be too careful for that, I'm sure.

Well, I'm sure he's sure -- because every super-villain has a weakness, and with a rich one like this, that weakness is usually hubris.

  • You realise that he might have me as his figurehead, and after I am gone, his profits will be sky-high. Must do something about that... – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 17:25

Assuming he's in the US (and the courts are willing to uphold the 2nd Amendment), he doesn't get shut down. What are guns, pepper spray, tasers, body armor, &c but various technological superpowers?

  • tell that to anyone working on nukes. – Mark Gardner Nov 19 at 18:57

He should just jump right in with the people who are already doing exactly this!

Most of the major weapons manufacturers in the world have various "super" organizations as their primary clients. Some of these organizations (commonly referred to as "governments") are the "good guys" and some are the "bad guys" (with divisions drawn along fairly arbitrary and shifting lines) but the weapons manufacturers make a killing by selling to both sides of every conflict (though not necessarily at the same time.)

These "super" organizations pay billions of dollars every year to equip hundreds of thousands of people with varying degrees of batman-like abilities as they see fit/can afford.

Just like in the comic books, clashes between these heroes and villains causes fallout that often kills hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent bystanders, laying waste to entire cities and forcing whole populations to abandon their homes and possessions or perish. Also, just like in the comic books, this little detail gets almost completely ignored by all "right-thinking" people of the world who are just glad to see good triumph over evil yet again.

Of course, for the most part these massive organizations are extremely jealous of the power they lord over the common folk, so his dreams of selling outside the bounds of recognized players that are already in the game are fraught with peril. If he tries it he'll end up with both the "heroes" and the "villains" teaming up to wipe him out. They don't like competition.

You should also point out to him that the reason nobody's decided to "become Batman" on their own is that the crime rate in the developed world is actually pretty darn low in most places (compared to the more turbulent parts of our history anyway), with the exceptions being primarily certain neighbourhoods in certain cities, all of which have a distinct lack of millionaires and billionaires who would be interested in his products. So if he really wants to succeed at this he's going to have to come up with ways to market his products for people on the poorer end of the scale as well.

One important thing to be considering, Mark: you should take care to document clearly, and with plenty of witnesses, that these are all his ideas and not yours. Otherwise you could be the one who gets arrested.

Or at least make sure to squirrel away some of the best tech for your own supervillain suit for when you get out of jail and take revenge.

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    That's actually a terrible idea. Such documentation would be proof that he knew his boss was planning to sell to the "bad guys" (whoever that turns out to be) and therefore his continued participation would make him an accessory. A better approach would be to scrub any and all information that even hints at the black-market sales being a deliberate part of their strategy (including this question... uh-oh...) – Perkins Nov 20 at 0:21

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