10 December 2017

SDCC: All Your Comic Con™ Are Belong To Us

A tale from the branding and trademark war: Forbes magazine is reporting that, in a rights battle between the organizers of what was up until now called the Salt Lake City Comic Con and the juggernaut-of-them-all, San Diego Comic Con International, the side that cast themselves as the David in the all-too-inevitable David v. Goliath interpretation, the SLC group, lost in its contention that the term comic con was one that was a generic description of a convention-style (at least as this legal layman understands it) event celebrating comics (and in the SDCC case, just about every corner of pop culture).

A fairly close reading of the article suggests that however one might feel about the battle, the SLC organizers show signs of being the wrong partisans. For example, the article cites a finding in which two of the organizers voted themselves a six-figure bonus even as they were crowdfunding their legal defense; if someone was going to release a zig for great justice, this may not have been the ideal one, even with a barnstorming prosecution via the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, SDCC seemed to have a solid case on their side and proved infringement in court.

As a result, many fan events calling themselves 'comic cons' may find themselves having to negotiate agreements with SDCC International just to use the term, this case having established a precedent. Since IANAL, I imagine there's a lot of context that may come to bear, but the article also mentions a few top-echelon Comic Cons that have worked out licensing agreements with SDCC, Emerald City ComicCon and our own local Rose City Comic Con. There are also many ways to title an event: the current-on-hiatus indie fest Linework NW and a few small micro-cons offer examples of this and how it can avoid what is now a court-adjudicated trademark issue.

It's kind of like the dark side of the idea of trademarks and service marks, and I can't help it: proving one has the rights to a generic-sounding trademark like "Comic Con" feels a little like trademarking the phrase "I Love You" (which I remember happening during my lifetime), or "air" as "something to breathe." In the context of first-magnitude events, it attains a certain level of reasonableness, somehow, however.

This definitely puts a new wrinkle into the idea of crafting an identity and personality for media-centered fan events going forward. The ripples from this one will probably be spreading out for a while.

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