Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Comic-Con Trademark - Part 1

In case you missed it, last week a jury found Comic-Con to be a valid, enforceable trademark. The jury ruled Salt Lake Comic Con (SLCC) infringed upon the Comic-Con trademark owned by Comic-Con International (CCI), the company behind San Diego Comic-Con, and it awarded CCI a judgment of $20,000, far less than the $12,000,000 it was seeking. For a great recap of some of the background and issues underlying the dispute, check out this Forbes article by Rob Salkowitz .
The two conventions have been litigating the issue since 2014, and this decision has implications for the broader comic book convention circuit. There are numerous comic book conventions around the country, and many of them use the phrase “comic con” in their name and branding. After this decision, many of these companies will need to re-evaluate their brand and determine if they need to change their name, change their marketing practices, or seek a license from CCI to use the phrase.
While SLCC has vowed to appeal the decision, recent reports suggest they are also looking at re-branding their convention.[1] The validity of the Comic-Con trademark is also being challenged with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Both routes are an uphill battle.
On appeal, the issues being appealed and the standard of review the court applies will likely determine the outcome. In order for SLCC to have a shot at winning on appeal, it will have to convince the 9th Circuit to review the case de novo, meaning the 9th Circuit will essentially rehear the case.[2] If SLCC can show there is a question of law or a mixed question of law and fact still at issue, then the 9th Circuit would use this standard of review. If, however, the court applies another standard of review, such as clearly erroneous, abuse of discretion, or substantial evidence, then the outcome favors SDCC. These standards are deferential to the lower courts findings, and it will be hard for SLCC to overturn the lower court’s ruling.
SLCC is also facing a tough battle in their proceeding to cancel the Comic-Con trademark with the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB). CCI’s main Comic-Con trademark was registered in 2007. In 2012, CCI filed for incontestability, which means the mark had not been challenged during the previous 5 years, and it limits the ways a trademark can be invalidated. Now, the only way for SLCC to invalidate the mark would be to show it has become generic, which now may be impossible to do as a result of the jury decision, or by showing CCI committed fraud upon the USPTO when registering the trademark. The latter approach is the one being taken by SLCC, but the proceeding was suspended pending the outcome of the trial. Again, this is an uphill battle for SLCC, but if they can convince the TTAB the statements made by CCI to obtain registration were fraudulently made, then they have a shot.
Personally, I’m a little surprised by the decision. When it was registered, the USPTO found the “Comic-Con” mark to be merely descriptive because it describes comic conventions, but the mark was granted registration due to it acquiring secondary meaning. Merely descriptive marks describe the goods and services being offered and are usually afforded weak protection. Perhaps that is one factor explaining the low monetary award? Even though Comic-Con, and even Comic Con, are riskier phrases for convention organizers to use, it’s hard to imagine organizers being prevented from using the words comic book convention or comic convention to describe their events going forward.
As I said near the beginning, if you use the phrase “comic con” in your event title, you will need to re-evaluate your brand strategy. Honestly, it’s not the worst thing to do anyways. At best the comic con phrase is merely descriptive of the services being offered. You’ll be doing yourself a favor if you can come up with a unique brand name. It’ll be easier to trademark too, but that’s a discussion for next time.   


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