A while ago, I posted an article I wrote about ways content owners might be able to protect public domain works. One of the scenarios I mentioned in my article, using trademark rights as a way to protect the work, was actually used against a comic book publisher a few years ago.
In 2010, Dynamite Entertainment launched a few new comic books adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs stories that had passed into the public domain in the United States. The titles of the comics were Lord of the Jungle, featuring Tarzan stories, and Warlord of Mars, featuring John Carter stories.
The Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, ERB, Inc., filed a lawsuit in 2012. One of the issues ERB asserted was that Dynamite’s titles for the new comics violated ERB’s trademark rights by selling comics bearing titles confusingly similar to those used by ERB. Even though the Dynamite comics did not mention the main characters’ names in the title, the titles Dynamite chose had been used as subtitles in the past. ERB also claimed Dynamite’s publication of the books diluted or damaged its brands, partially due to some risqué covers associated with the books, and Dynamite’s publication of the books would harm the comic book licensing deals it currently had in place with another publisher.
Unfortunately, from a legal observer perspective, the case did not get very far. After a few initial filings, the parties settled the case. Interestingly, as part of the settlement, Dynamite ended up acquiring the license to publish Tarzan and John Carter comics that had previously been with another publisher.
Even though we did not get a ruling that might have given us a better understanding of the interplay between public domain works and trademark law, I still find it an interesting case. It shows the importance of securing trademark rights to ongoing titles, and a possible way for content owners to retain some control over works that might fall into the public domain.
Barring another extension of the copyright term, a number of early, high-profile comic books should fall into the public domain over the next 15-20 years, such as the first appearances of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel/Shazam, and Captain America. As tempting as it might be to reprint or create derivative works based on these stories, anyone attempting to do so should consider if there any trademark risks in doing so. Particularly, if the character is still being published.