— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney
The term Comic Con has become synonymous with a certain culture. In recent years, comic book conventions (and comic book culture), have become increasingly popular. Annual comic book conventions are held in major cities across the U.S. and the world. Many of these conventions are titled—officially or unofficially—“[City] Comic Con.” One recent jury decision, however, may cause some (official) rebranding.
In 2014, the San Diego Comic Convention (San Diego CC) sued organizers of the Salt Lake Comic Convention (Salt Lake CC) for trademark infringement. San Diego alleged that Salt Lake willfully infringed its registered COMIC-CON and COMIC CON INTERNATIONAL marks.
Salt Lake CC defended primarily on the ground that “comic con” is a generic term for comic book conventions. The convention organizers cited to the names of various cities’ comic conventions to show the term is used generically—Motor City Comic Con, New York Comic Con, Denver Comic Con, and Emerald City Comic Con, among others. Salt Lake CC also pointed to the usage of “comic con” in media to generically refer to a type of convention.
Throughout the case, Salt Lake CC worked to rally fans behind the view that “comic con” belongs to the public. Eventually, Salt Lake CC’s tweets, Facebook posts, and press releases about the case prompted the federal judge to issue a gag order. The order temporarily prevented Salt Lake CC from commenting on the case, and restricted their ability to republish public court documents. The order was appealed to the Ninth Circuit and ultimately vacated on First Amendment grounds.
At trial, San Diego CC presented its Comic Con to the jury as a brand. Through surveys and other evidence, San Diego CC convinced the jury that Comic Con is not a generic term for a type of event. Instead, San Diego argued, it operates as a source designator for the San Diego convention.
The Jury found that Salt Lake CC’s use of “Comic Con” infringes on San Diego’s registered marks. The infringement, however, was not willful according to the jury. Thus, despite San Diego’s request of $12 million in damages, they were awarded only $20,000 for corrective advertising. Post-trial motions will likely be filed, and the case may be appealed to the Ninth Circuit. But at least for the time being, it seems Comic Con is (officially) off limits to event organizers without a license. However, I suspect (unofficial) uses of the term will continue.