The legal forrest that the Yellow Brick Road travels through on the way to success as an independent comic creator or publisher just became a scarier place.
It is probably fitting that the demonized Ghost Rider character has lit the torch with his blazing skull.
Regardless of your opinion as to wether Gary Friedrich should be compensated for his contribution to the creation of the character of Ghost Rider and the unfairness of the court’s ruling against him, it is Marvel’s victory in a countersuit against him that has turned the hourglass on end and the sand is running out.
In a brilliant facebook entry written by the esteemed Stephen Bissette he raises the alarm for artists in artist alley that sell sketches of trademarked characters without consent. In the blog he explains the legal necessity of Marvel’s enforcement. They have a responsibility to actively protect their trademarks or risk losing them.
This practice of due diligence is nothing new. When we had just published our second issue of Comico Primer back in 1982 we received a Cease and Desist letter from Will Eisner referring to a character featured in the comic whose name was Spirit. Spirit was a female robot that had absolutely no similarities whatsoever to Eisner’s character The Spirit. We had never even considered that there would or could be a conflict.
Will Eisner appreciated that we were young and naive and explained that he paid lawyers to protect his properties. Their job was to seek out potential conflicts and he had a responsibility to follow through on their findings to protect his interests. Needless to say we were embarrassed and humbled by the graciousness of this man that we already had great respect and admiration for. We were sure to honor his simple request that we not use the name Spirit especially not on a cover of one of our comic books.
It strikes me that it was a lot easier for a comic artist like Will Eisner to police the comic industry for copyright and trademark infringement in 1982 than it would be today. Thirty years ago there were just a few publishers in the market and a handful of fanzines. There was no internet with a seemingly endless selection of web comics and there were surely not the tremendous number of comic creators that exist today.
The Friedrich vs. Marvel case has magnified the necessity of protecting one’s trademark. If a huge corporation like Marvel/Disney finds it necessary to hassle Gary Friedrich over $17,000 because those sales of prints he sold in artist alley at comic book conventions could jeopardize their claim to trademark, how safe can the trademarks of smaller companies be?
Should every small publisher, self publisher and comic artist be canvasing comic conventions and the internet, prepared to rifle out a C&D letter to every potential infringer? How can small publishers and creators afford to do it without the funds or the time to execute such an endeavor? How vulnerable are our intellectual properties?
Imagine if some guy is a big fan of your character and goes to every convention getting every artist he finds to draw a picture of your character. Proud of his collection he displays it all over facebook, and his website. Another company likes your character and discovers all these images that were created by unlicensed vendors, in this case artists in artist alley, and feel that they have deep enough pockets to argue that the trademark has been left exposed.
Marvel’s victory over their assertion that Friedrich’s sales in artist alley were a credible threat to their trademark establishes a precedent that will influence future rulings. Make no mistake, the big boys will go after the competition and will do whatever it takes to win.
Marvel took a shot at the insanely popular Rocketeer back in the 80′s claiming it infringed on characters that they had that were also called Rocketeers. Their characters were minor characters buried in a forgettable story. Dave Steven’s had to fight for years to defend his property tying up capital that could have been used more productively.
This may all seem like paranoia until it actually happens but who wants to be the first victim. The industry has been buzzing over piracy now for some time. The threat of piracy is nothing compared to the threat of trademarked properties being totally hijacked by unscrupulous competitors.
Comic creators, please get educated on copyright and trademark laws. They can be your friends or your enemies. Don’t let your ignorance on the subject make your property a hostage as you travel that long, arduous Yellow Brick Road to success.
Celebrating Thirty Years of Comics History!