Sunday, October 17, 2021

Halloween Costumes & Knockoffs - Part V

    Once again, it's the spooky season. I love Halloween, and as I've done the past few years, I'm going to point out some of my favorite superhero knock-off costumes on Amazon. You can find years twothree, and four at the links. If you want to re-read my first post that includes the legal whys behind knockoff costumes, you can find it hereOtherwise, on to the costumes! (Note: all links affiliate links)



Protect against Winter (Soldier) with this skin-tight top, or one of the other 20+ different superhero versions of it.






Help your child find their Glorious Purpose.



My daughter would actually like this Spider Gwenom.




Sexy Deadpool? Sexy Lady Deadpool? You decide.


A Wonderous Woman? Indeed.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Contract Negotiation - A Red Flag

 

            I’ve written a few times about contract negotiating power. However, I have not written about one of the biggest red flags I see when negotiating publisher agreements in the comic book industry—a publisher who refuses to negotiate the deal terms.

            I consider the refusal to negotiate a major warning. Your relationship with your publisher will never be better than when they are trying to get you to sign a deal. If they value you and your work, they should be willing to negotiate and address any major concerns you might have. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, then it reflects the value they place upon you. It is also a prelude to how they will act if anything problematic comes up later. If they didn’t want to work out problems with you at the beginning of the agreement, are they going to want to address problems you might have after the deal is signed?

            Now, not everything is an absolute. I have seen some publishers with relatively unproblematic contracts[1] who are not that flexible. They will try to address some concerns, but aren’t willing to budge on some key issues in the negotiating provisions. Again, this is less of a problem when the terms are relatively unproblematic to begin with. There are other publishers, however, who have incredibly problematic contract terms that essentially strip a creator of all rights to their project. If you try to negotiate the deal to make it fairer, they will tell the creator to “take it, or leave it.” In these instances, where a publisher will not even try to negotiate a fairer deal with you to address major concerns, you will almost always be better off leaving it.

            If you encounter a publisher that presents you with a contract that has terms you disagree with and the publisher refuses to negotiate or address your concerns, you need to give serious consideration to walking away. In most of my experiences, this is a major red flag and the relationship with the publisher will not improve.



[1]     Most comic book publishing contracts are not that great for creators, particularly where payment of money is concerned. Nevertheless, there are some that are much more problematic than others when it comes to reversion rights and media deals.

Monday, August 30, 2021

5 Top Copyright FAQ's


Note: (Updated August 2021)

As an intellectual property lawyer who works with comic book creators and who hosts panels at comic book conventions, I answer a lot of questions about copyright law. As of August 2021, here are five of the most frequently asked questions.

1) If I place a copy of my work in an envelope and mail it to myself, does this give me copyright protection?

This is what’s known as a poor man’s copyright. It’s not a real thing. Once you have created your work, you own the copyright. Registering your work with the Copyright Office solidifies your claim of ownership and grants you some additional rights regarding enforcement.

2) How do I prevent someone from stealing my idea?

The answer to this question varies. The simplest way is to not tell anyone about your fantastic idea. The second best solution is to have everyone you tell about your idea sign a non-disclosure agreement, which can be burdensome and impractical. Typically, the best approach is to write down as much of your idea as possible in a detailed synopsis, outline, etc. This shows you have taken steps to actually turn your idea into a copyrightable work. If you do need to discuss your idea with someone else, either give them the synopsis you’ve prepared or, if you’re having a conversation and there is not an opportunity to get a signed agreement, don’t be as thorough in your descriptions. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to document who knows about your project.

3) Other people are making and selling fan art pieces, so it’s legal, right?

No. Just because others are violating someone’s copyright rights and not being stopped does not give you a free license to do the same. A copyright owner could come along at any time and enforce its rights through cease-and-desist letters, DMCA takedown notices, or lawsuits. If you are making and selling art using the intellectual property of others without their permission, you are likely infringing on their rights. Be careful. For more, check out my previous posts on fan art: Is Fan Art Legal? and Fan Art and Fair Use - An Update

4) If my work is 10/20/30% different than the original work I’ll be fine, right?

There is no set percentage that would make your work non-infringing. One of the factors courts look at is whether the new work is “transformative.” The Copyright Office describes transformative works as “those that add something new, with a further purpose or different character, and do not substitute for the original use of the work.”[1] Obviously, you will be better off with more differences between your work and the original work.

5) What about fair use?

As I’ve said numerous times, fair use is a defense to copyright infringement. It will be raised in court after you’ve been sued, and the court will decide whether your work is a fair use. If someone thinks you’ve ripped off their work, claiming your work is a fair use probably won’t stop them from suing you. I’ve talked about fair use more in-depth here.

Bonus Questions:

6) Do I need to register a copyright?
    
Technically, a work is protected by copyright as soon as it is created. However, you must register your copyrighted work in order to enforce your rights, and if you register it before an infringement occurs, you can be eligible for statutory damages.

7) How much does it cost to register a copyright?

The copyright office charges different fees depending on what is being registered. The current fee for most works created by more than one individual is $65.

8) Can I copyright my title?

No, you cannot copyright a title to a single creative work. You may be able to obtain a trademark, but only if the creative work is part of a series or a meets other certain requirements. Comic book series are typically entitled to trademark protection.

For a bit more-detailed explanation of copyright law, check out my post here.




[1] More information on fair use, Copyright.gov, https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/more-info.html (last visisted August 30, 2021).

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Conventions and Contributory Liability

 

I’ve been thinking about the return of comic book conventions. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about contributory infringement. Recently, the second circuit decided a case involving contributory infringement of a trademark at a retail property in New York. Contributory trademark infringement allows a trademark owner to pursue liability against a third party who did not directly infringe the trademark but somehow benefited from the infringement or encouraged it. As most convention attendees know, there is a good amount of unlicensed merchandise being produced and sold at conventions. Whether or not this case could have implications for operators of comic book conventions is a fascinating question. In particular, it is an interesting question to determine whether or not a vendor’s sale of goods or art could lead to contributory infringement on the part of the convention operator.

In the case Omega SA v. 375 Canal LLC[1], the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict awarding the manufacturer of Omega watches $1.1 million in damages. The decision focused on a building owner’s willful blindness of the infringing activities taking place at their building, namely repeated sales of counterfeit high-end watches and luxury handbags, and the owner’s failure to reasonably act to stop the infringing activity upon learning of it.

Whenever people talk with me about the legal issues surrounding fan art and publisher enforcement, one of the issues I bring up is how difficult it would be for publishers to monitor for infringing activities at the numerous conventions held across the country. I know of instances where a publisher’s employees have complained about infringing goods being sold at a convention. Typically, when a publisher’s employee complains the vendor is removed or the infringing item is removed. Obviously, the burden on publishers’ employees to enforce their intellectual property could be substantive. However, this decision in 375 Canal, and other similar cases, does present an opportunity for publishers to exert more pressure on convention owners to take steps to monitor and mitigate infringing activity.

In my experience, the typical convention operator handles claims of infringement in two ways. First, they will have exhibitors sign a contract stating the goods they sell do not infringe any 3rd party’s rights, and the exhibitor will cover the convention operator’s costs if the operator suffers harm due to the vendor’s sales of infringing goods. Second, if someone complains about a particular item or vendor, the operator may remove the vendor from the convention.

The contractual part is a good first step, and recommended, but still leaves the operator exposed because most vendors would not be able to reimburse the operator in the event of a lawsuit. However, the contract is necessary to establish that the operator is taking infringement seriously. As for asking a vendor to leave due to infringement, this policy is a must. If the operator knows the vendor is selling unlicensed or counterfeit goods and does nothing, then they could be liable for contributory trademark infringement.  

As mentioned above, protecting and enforcing trademark rights at conventions around the country (and world) can be difficult for publishers. I’m certain trademark owners would love to force operators to take a harder stance on preventing infringement, and this case opens a slight door to do so. If a convention operator has a history of allowing infringing goods to be sold at their conventions and a history of turning a blind eye to such infringement, then the operator could be found guilty of contributory trademark infringement.



[1] 984 F.3d 244 (2021).

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Trademark FAQs


A while back I did a FAQ on many of the copyright questions I receive. It’s about time to do one on trademarks as well.

Note: This is not a complete list of everything you need to know about trademarks, but a few commonly asked questions I receive. (Updated June 2021)

1) Do I need to register a trademark?

If you think the trademark is vital to your brand or organization, then registering it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) makes sense—this is known as a federal trademark. But, only do so if you are using it in interstate commerce and plan on continuously using it. Sales of product in interstate commerce and continued use are requirements to maintaining federal trademark protection. If you are using a trademark without registering it, you have what are known as common law rights, but it can be difficult to establish and protect those rights. Registration with the USPTO is the best way to prove and enforce your rights.

    1) a. Can I register a trademark if I am not yet using it?
Yes, you can file an intent-to-use application. This will preserve your right to use the trademark in connection with your goods. However, there is an additional cost to do so. When you begin using your trademark, you will have to submit a statement of use and additional fee ($100) to convert it to a registration. If you have not begun using your trademark in commerce within 6 months of it being allowed, then you will have to file a extension of time request and pay an additional fee ($125).

2) Can I register a comic book title as a trademark?

Yes, so long as you continue publishing the comic book as an ongoing series under the same title. Again, continued use is key to maintaining a trademark. Because of this requirement, titles of books or one-shots are not eligible for trademark protection.

3) How much does it cost to register a trademark?

It costs between $250-$350 per class of goods/services to file a trademark registration. Depending on how it’s filed, the number of classes of goods/services selected, and if it encounters any issues during the registration process, the costs of registration could increase. If you’re using an attorney or a service to assist you in registering the trademark, those fees will be separate. Once registered, there are additional fees to maintain your trademark registration.

4) Are there other trademark registration options?

You can try and register your trademark in the state in which you reside. It will be cheaper, but only grants you trademark rights in that state.

5) Can’t I just put a ® next to my title?

No, the ® designation is reserved only for trademarks registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Unregistered trademarks may be designated with a “TM,” but it does not grant you any special rights.

If you’d like to read more about trademarks, check out my previous post in my Comics Startup 101 series.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Copyright, Trademark, and Comic Book Character Names

 

            Copyright law and trademark law are both very important to comic book creators. As an intellectual property lawyer, these are the two areas of law I deal with the most. They are also areas of law that can be easily confused, but they protect very different things.

            Copyright law at its most basic level protects a creative work. It protects the way a work is written or drawn. It gives the creator of the work the right to recreate it, publish it, and create derivate works based upon it. It also prevents unauthorized uses of the work that infringe on the creator’s rights.

            Trademark law serves a different purpose. A trademark is “[a] word, phrase, or logo, or other graphic symbol used by a manufacturer or seller to distinguish its product or products from those of others.”[1] The purpose of a trademark is to identify a seller’s legitimate goods in the marketplace and to prevent consumer confusion. A trademark does not protect the title of a single creative work. However, it can protect the title of periodical publications, such as comic books. It does not protect the name of a character unless that character’s name also serves as a trademark.

            A comic book series can be protected by both copyright and trademark law. The art and story in a comic book are protected by copyright law. The depictions of the characters, such as their design and character attributes, are also be protected by copyright. The title of the work is protected by trademark law.

            The most prominent example of how these differing laws interact in comic book publishing is Captain Marvel. As I’ve discussed before, Fawcett introduced the character Captain Marvel in the late 1930s. After DC Comics brought a copyright infringement lawsuit against Fawcett by DC Comics, Fawcett stopped publishing the character because the court found that the character infringed on DC’s copyrights to Superman. Had Fawcett continued publishing the character, Fawcett would have been found to have committed additional copyright infringement. (Note: I still believe the decision to be incorrect, but that was what the court decided.)

Subsequently, Marvel Comics obtained a trademark registration to publish a comic book using the title Captain Marvel. Marvel Comics introduced a new character using the same name, and continued to publish comic books titled Captain Marvel. When DC Comics obtained the rights to use Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, they were prohibited from calling the book Captain Marvel due to Marvel’s ownership of the Captain Marvel trademark registration covering comic books. Hence, DC published the stories of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel character under the title Shazam!

Two characters with the same name can coexist simultaneously. If they are not copies of each other, or close imitations, then they do not violate copyright law. If the works in which they are published do not include their name, then trademark law is not a concern. However, if one character is published in a work that includes their name, such as Captain Marvel, then another publisher with a character using the same name would be prohibited from using that character’s name in their title.

Generally speaking, it is advisable to avoid using the name of a character that already exists. Even if copyright law isn’t a concern, the elements of trademark law could trip up the unwary.You might find yourself in an undesirable situation, such as a threat of a lawsuit or the inability to use your character’s name as the title of your book. As I mentioned in my Comics Startup 101 post, a clearance search is the best way to protect yourself from unwittingly running afoul of trademark law. 



[1] Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd Pocket Ed.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Copyright Termination Basics

 

        The news recently broke that the original screenwriters of the Predator movie are seeking to reclaim ownership of their screenplay from Disney, who acquired the franchise when they bought 20th Century Fox. Since the concept of copyright terminations will continue to be an issue for years to come, I am going to do a quick summary.[1]

 

What is a copyright termination?

 The 1976 Copyright Act included provisions that allowed authors of works to terminate a previous transfer of the work. For transfers executed by the author after January 1, 1978, Section 203* of the Act states that authors can terminate the grant during a 5-year window 35 years after the original grant.

*There are two other provisions addressing terminations for works that are specific to works created or assigned before 1978. I will not be addressing those provisions here.

 

Why were authors granted the right to terminate copyright transfers?

 The termination provision was added as a replacement for the renewal term under the previous copyright law.[2] The provision was included as a safeguard for authors to protect against being exploited with unfavorable deals. Congress noted that the full value of a work can’t be known until it has been exploited.[3] By giving authors the ability to terminate the transfer, they have the ability to participate in the value of the work.

 

How can an author terminate a transfer?

The author, or his heirs or estate, may terminate a transfer by sending a written notice of the termination. It must be signed by the author, it must state the date of the termination (which must fall in the 5 year window mentioned above), and it must be served between two and ten years before the termination date. A copy of the notice must also be filed with the Copyright Office.

 

Can the termination provision be waived via contract?

No, the termination provision cannot be contracted around. The author cannot give up or waive the termination right before it vests.

 

Are there restrictions on what types of work can be terminated?

Yes, the termination provision does not apply to works-made-for-hire.

 

What happens after termination?

The author reclaims all rights that were transferred and can exploit the work in the future. Derivative works prepared during the term of the grant may continue to be exploited by the grantee pursuant to the original terms, but no new works may be produced.



[1] All provisions discussed can be found in 17 U.S.C. §203

[2] H.Rep. Report No. 94-1476, 124.

[3] Id.