Every July, thousands of pop culture enthusiasts descent on San Diego to take part in what has become the preeminent event in geek culture: San Diego Comic-Con. Fans come looking for merchandise, panel discussions, and the latest news on all their favorite franchises, and entertainment studios are more than willing to oblige in an effort to build excitement for upcoming projects. The name Comic-Con has become synonymous with big stars, bigger films, and internet-melting news. But alleged misuse of the name on the part of another convention has prompted legal action that might determine the course of similarly named events across the country with a trademark infringement battle.
The organizers of San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) have sent a cease and desist letter to their counterparts for Salt Lake City’s convention, demanding they stop using “Comic-Con” in their name, a term for which they claim to hold the trademark. Lawyers for SDCC were contacted by a business in the San Diego area regarding a car decked out in a decorative skin promoting Salt Lake Comic-Con, which the caller mistakenly believed was related to the San Diego iteration. Salt Lake Comic-Con co-founders Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg had driven the car down for a promotional photo shoot featuring the car and the celebrities who would be at their event in September.
In their letter to the Salt Lake City organizers, SDCC’s attorneys argued that fans who saw them use the name Comic-Con might mistakenly believe that the Salt Lake City convention was affiliated with SDCC, and that the use “is likely to cause confusion in the minds of attendees, exhibitors, and fans as to the source, sponsorship, or endorsement of your Salt Lake City convention.” The letter goes on to demand that Farr and Brandenberg immediately stop using the mark in relation to their event online, in print ads, and any other promotional material, as well as transfer any domain names they own that contain “comiccon” or any variations on that.
For their part, Farr and Brandenberg intend to fight to continue using Comic-Con, arguing that the term is a fair use description of their exhibit and too generic to be trademarked by SDCC. In their statement regarding SDCC’s actions, Brandenburg cited the trademark granted to Denver Comic-Con as well as SDCC’s failed attempt to trademark Comic-Con in 1995 as evidence that SDCC does not hold any exclusive right to the term. The statement also questioned why the Salt Lake Comic-Con was singled out for legal action, given that there are over 65 conventions in the US alone that use “Comic-Con” or some variation in their title, including Phoenix’s.
Regardless of the outcome, this legal dispute between rival conventions illustrates the need for businesses to establish early on their own unique brand and ensure it receives the necessary legal protection. It is important for entrepreneurs to note that something as generic as “Comic-Con” might prove difficult to trademark or defend, as it proves merely a description of what the event is and doesn’t necessarily differentiate it from other comic book conventions. Taking time early in a venture to ensure brand protection can save small businesses from a fate worse than the sarlacc pit: courtroom battles.
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