Author: David Baker
Earlier this month, a jury in San Diego federal court was asked to decide if the use of the trademark “COMIC CON” by Daniel Farr, Bryan Brandenburg, and Dan Farr Productions for a comic book convention held in Salt Lake City constituted an infringement of the trademark “COMIC-CON” (note the distinguishing hyphen) owned by San Diego Comic Convention. Farr and Brandenburg had organized and presented the Salt Lake City convention under the name “Salt Lake Comic Con” since 2011. San Diego Comic Convention (or “SDCC”) also asked the jury to award monetary damages totaling $12 million as compensation for damage allegedly done to the “COMIC-CON” trademark by its misuse.
After hearing testimony and considering the evidence presented at trial, the jury ruled in favor of SDCC and found that the name “Salt Lake Comic Con” (“SLCC”) had infringed the SDCC mark (and that such infringement should stop). However, the jury awarded SDCC monetary damages of only $20,000. It may have been difficult for the jury to believe that a trademark for a comic book convention could be worth anywhere near $12 million.
In fact, SDCC has operated an annual comic book convention in San Diego since 1970 and it holds thirty-eight (38) active federal registrations for trademarks associated with the convention that are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (the “PTO”). Principal among these registered marks is “COMIC-CON” (PTO Service Mark Reg. No. 3,219,568), a mark that has been used by SDCC from the beginning in relation to “conventions showcasing comics and comic books as well as other aspects of the popular arts such as graphic arts, science fiction films, fantasy films, and literature.”
As SDCC alleged in its complaint, the “COMIC-CON” marks have been used so extensively and continuously to promote the San Diego convention that “consumers have come to recognize and identify the “COMIC-CON” marks as representative of the quality events and services provided by SDCC.” Indeed, the San Diego Comic-Con convention has grown so much in popularity over the past five decades that attendance now exceeds 130,000 and many films and television shows, including The Big Bang Theory, often reference the convention as key plot points.
In comparison, other comic conventions like the SLCC convention (and over a hundred others using the name “Comic Con,” including Los Angeles Comic Con convention and New York Comic Con convention) now draw similar attendance numbers but it is generally accepted that they are able to do so, in large part, because of the sustained popularity of the San Diego event.
Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t SLCC’s mere usage of “COMIC CON” that triggered the SDCC lawsuit. What directly led to the filing was a marketing stunt Farr and Brandenburg pulled in 2014 to promote their own convention. They traveled to San Diego, rented large panel trucks, affixed huge billboards to them inviting viewers to attend SLCC that September, and then drove them back and forth along Harbor Drive in front of the San Diego Convention Center during the July 2014 San Diego Comic-Con convention.
Seemingly left with no other choice (and likely hoping to send a message to other competing comic book conventions misusing the trademarks), SDCC filed suit against Farr and Brandenburg in August 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California (Case No. 14CV1865 AJB JMA) alleging trademark infringement and false designation of origin.
Once the battle was joined, Farr and Brandenburg filed their own cross-complaint and sought to have the “COMIC-CON” trademarks declared “generic” and, therefore, unenforceable. Genericism occurs when a protectable trademark like linoleum, escalator, or even videotape becomes so associated with a good or service in consumer minds that it stops serving as a source identifier. And, worse, they become ineffective as a trademark. Farr and Brandenburg also filed a cancellation proceeding against the “COMIC-CON” mark based on the same genericism argument (which is still pending) in the PTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeals Board.
Unfortunately for SLCC, Farr and Brandenburg’s genericism arguments were inconsistent. In certain pleadings, they argued that SDCC’s failure to enforce its trademark rights in the face of ever widening third party usage had led to them becoming a generic means of referring to any comic book convention. And in other pleadings, they argued that trademarks like “COMIC-CON” were generic ab initio, meaning that they were already generic when SDCC started using them in 1970.
In understanding a fundamental flaw in the defense, it is important to understand that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (under whose jurisdiction the San Diego court operates) does not recognize genericism ab initio as a matter of law. So, without any supporting case law from the 9th Circuit, District Court Judge Anthony J. Battaglia ruled against FARR and Brandeburg’s genericism ab initio arguments presented in competing motions for summary judgment in September. Effectively, this gutted the SLCC defense and set up the November trial that ended with the December 1 jury decision in favor of SDCC.
Why It Matters. While it remains to be seen what impact the jury’s decision will have on other competing comic book conventions (as of the writing of this post all were still using variations of “comic con” on their websites), there are several important takeaways from the recent court battle.
First, SDCC had little choice but to sue SLCC and to take the case all the way to trial once it had decided the “COMIC-CON” trademark was worth protecting, SLCC was infringing that trademark and SLCC refused to negotiate reasonable settlement terms. After selecting a strong trademark, there are many things a trademark owner can do to strengthen and protect a trademark but one of the essential things it must do is to force infringers to stop infringing.
Second, now that SDCC has prevailed over SLCC, there is no certainty that the numerous other conventions using the “comic con” trademark as their own will decide to stop and avoid incurring the wrath of SDCC. In fact, it remains SDCC’s responsibility to pursue each and every other infringer if it intends to fully protect its mark. Quite simply, there are no “trademark police.” The law places the responsibility for enforcement on the trademark owner.
Third, the case serves as an important reminder that trademark litigation can be very, very expensive with no guarantee of a sizable monetary recovery. Precise numbers for the attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and assorted litigation expenses on both sides have not been made public, but before the case even went to trial the SLCC organizers looked to online fundraising to try and raise more than a million dollars to cover their own fees and costs.
And whether it was Voltaire, Stan Lee, or Spiderman’s Uncle Ben who first said, “With great proper comes great responsibility,” San Diego Comic Convention knew that the same logic applies to great trademarks and it acted accordingly.