Some Thoughts on the Comic Con Trademark Kerfluffle
I am not a lawyer, although I did take an intellectual property course once (in today’s world, where everyone ends up violating those laws, it seemed useful), so these are just some observations from an uninterested party.
Here’s some background. The short version is that the San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) has sued the organizers of the Salt Lake Comic Con for federal trademark infringement.
The folks behind Salt Lake then found it necessary to send out a press release saying that they’ve hired a lawyer, although that’s generally what one does when one is sued, unless one has a fool for a client.
I’m not sure this is relevant, but I find it interesting to note that SDCC is a non-profit organization “dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.” No one’s getting rich off the growth of the show, in other words, although I’m sure their organizers are fairly compensated for what they do. In contrast, Salt Lake is a for-profit organization, and as we’ve seen before, there can be a lot of money in this game.
Anyway, one of the key factors in this case will likely be whether or not customers are being confused by the similar names. From this handy legal summary, “In order to stop trademark infringement, … the first business to adopt and use a particular mark in connection with its goods or services must prove likelihood of confusion.” We already have that, as established in the original cease-and-desist letter. Salt Lake wanted to promote their show at San Diego this year. Some of the business involved thought that the Salt Lake folks were associated with SDCC. Thus, confusion due to similarity. Evidence of actual confusion, instead of theoretical similarity, is a powerful argument.
Speaking of similarity, Salt Lake has made a big deal out of how many other shows use “Comic Con”. However, few of them are so similar in name structure in close geographic area. (That’s why I’m calling them Salt Lake instead of SLCC, since using both SLCC and SDCC in this article struck me as not particularly clear or readable.) There’s a San Jose Comic Con, but it’s a Wizard World show, so that’s the primary branding. And the other shows I checked beginning with S all have the location name as large as the rest. Part of SDCC’s complaint is that Salt Lake isn’t prominent enough in their advertising, as shown in this logo from their online store, where Comic Con is much larger than the location. Again, similarity leads to customer confusion. Their revised logo, above, has similar problems, although it does look sleeker.
(Interestingly, if you read that complaint, there are also statements about Salt Lake’s organizers’ press releases and websites trying to trade on this infringement to drum up publicity, which is used as evidence of bad faith.)
Now, the presence or absence of the hyphen is significant. In comparison, I believe, although I didn’t check this, that DC and Marvel jointly own “super hero” as a trademark, but not “superhero”. Given that, Salt Lake may win, although you never know what a jury will decide. But this all doesn’t make me want to go to the Salt Lake Comic Con, although from the press releases their organizers keep sending out, they certainly seem to see it as a marketing benefit. Their behavior, from fans’ belief that they’re removing webpage comments that don’t agree with them to bragging about how Salt Lake has more social media engagement to trying this case in the press, leaves a bad taste. If you have that strong a case, why all the smoke and mirrors and circus atmosphere?