Workshop Mailbag: Copyrights & Titles

The Alliance wants to get more input from YOU guys. For this, we’d like to do a Webcomic Workshop together regarding one specific issue. Let’s be fun and constructive. I’ll post the actual issue below, make my own comments and then, of course, you guys can start discussing. You can either reply to my own comment or start your own feedback. Sound like a plan? Here we go.

From Anonymous:

My issue is a legal one. It turns out someone began applying for a trademark for comic with the same name as mine sometime in the late 90’s. This, however, was not completed and was considered abandoned and a failed application. However, it is still a stumbling block on my part in bringing the brand to the US via POD (another would be taxes, but that’s a different issue) as I fear it may bite me later on. Further particulars are that my series began in my school paper here (in a country outside the U.S.) prior to the aforementioned application, which may be argued as use in commerce. However, it is in another country.

Anyways, do I have anything to fear with this? Can I safely make my brand available in the US?”

*note: some info was altered to further protect the identity of the reader.

 

Dawn says: This is a toughie. It is certainly hard to plan your comic book series if the title may be forced to change later on. And when it comes to copyright laws, you don’t want to mess around. So, I did some research. From this PDF from the U.S. copyright office, an interesting paragraph:

The copyright law of the United States (title 17 of the U.S. Code) provides for
copyright protection of literary and artistic works. Copyright protection begins
automatically when a work is first created in a fixed form. Cartoons and comic
strips are among the types of works of authorship protected by copyright. This
protection extends to any copyrightable pictorial or written expression con-
tained in the work. Thus a drawing, picture, depiction, or written description
of a character can be registered for copyright. Protection does not, however,
extend to the title or general theme for a cartoon or comic strip, the general
idea or name for characters depicted, or their intangible attributes. Although
the copyright law does not provide such protection, a character may be pro-
tected under aspects of state, common, or trademark laws, and titles and names
may sometimes be protected under state law doctrines or state and federal
trademark laws. Consult an attorney for details.

This tells me that you can probably keep your current title. The chance that the other creator got specific protection for his title via state/federal trademark law, outside of the general protection for characters & depiction, is slim. Plus, the fact that you reside outside the U.S. and have proof you’ve been working under this title for years prior, only helps your case. I am not a lawyer, of course, and I can fully understand your hesitancy.. so if you really intend to get a publishers (other than yourself), or get your books in store, I would suggest double-checking with a lawyer.

Speaking as someone with the oddball name “Zorphbert” in the title of her comic, you know this wasn’t an issue I have had! :0)

 

I am curious to hear about any issues, road blocks, or stories people have had with copyrighting their comic or trademarking elements of their work. Any advice for other readers on when is best to copyright, or what you need to send to do it?  And heck, if there’s a lawyer out there who wants to lend a hand with a definite answer on this, that’d be even better! Please, feel free to join in the discussion below!

 

 

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Don’t forget, if you have a question you’d like for us to cover, either in an article like this, or at the end of the Workshop Podcast, feel free to send it to us via the Submission form for Listener/Reader’s issues.


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3 Comments

  1. Copyright & Trademark laws are different in each country. From what I’ve understood, a trademark can be applied to a specific property but doesn’t cover all of the items and past items that use the name.

    The ongoing battle over Superman is a great example of how convoluted the world of trademark and copyright battles are.

    Your best bet is to pursue the Trademarking with enough of your past work, perhaps some written affirmation from the former paper’s editors and any other source you can think of that can vouch for your work in the past. Include all your samples from that time, and all of your current plans for the character and you’ll be well on your way to maintaining the trademark.

    From that point forward, people who decide to TM your comic’s name for their own use will probably be rejected unless they show evidence of the difference between works. Even at that, you can pursue legal action if their brand infringes on the brand you’ve created for your product and they will be forced to change the name and look until there is a discernible difference.

  2. I’m actually taking a class on this subject right now, so if I learn anything new in the next few months to add to this, I’ll be back with my hard-learned knowledge. Definitely a tricky topic, though. Glad to see it discussed, because the more I learn about the law, the more confusing I find it! Thanks for adding some clarity!

  3. Hi, I am a college instructor at our local district and this is a question I often get from my students. Thank you for clearing it out. But it would help if a lawyer would also give their input on this topic. Thanks!

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