There was a time when comic book fans had trouble connecting to one another. Attempts to do so were limited to printing cheap fan-magazines (fanzines) in their basements; or finding the addresses of other fans in the letters pages of their favorite comics writing to them. But finally, when a few of them decided it would be a good idea to get together, first in comic book clubs and later in larger groups, slowly but surely, the comic book convention was born.
Flash forward a few dozen years and the landscape is quite different. Comic book conventions are huge nowadays. There are major conventions in large cities every month, and the biggest of these bring in over a hundred thousand attendees, not to mention dealers, celebrities and creators. They are big money events with names like The Emerald City Comic Con, the New York Comic Con, Comic-Con International: San Diego and the Salt Lake Comic Con.
What do most of these events have in common (aside from rows and rows of longboxes filled with comics and people dressed as their favorite characters?) As you can see, many of these events have adopted the same naming convention, using the colloquial term that has developed in the fan community: Comic Con. But what happens when the biggest, most lucrative, most media-savvy of these events, the 800 lb. gorilla (or, to fans of the Flash, Gorilla Grodd) decides to flex its muscles and intimidate the new kid on the block? Well, in that case, things can get as ugly as half of Harvey Dent’s face.
The Salt Lake Comic Con (SLCC) started in 2013, the brainchild of Bryan Brandenburg and Dan Farr, a pair of businessmen who had worked for a 3D software modeling company and decided that Utah needed a comic book convention. The event was wildly successful, setting a record for highest attendance for a first year convention. Things were looking up.
But they ran into their own version of Lex Luthor when they decided to do a little publicity at the world-famous San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC). As Brandenburg recounts it, they wanted to bring the SLCC van to SDCC for the July event and take some publicity photos with guests who would be at the SLCC in September. The folks at SDCC contacted Brandenburg and told him that if he brought the van to the convention, he would face legal action. Brandenburg and his partner talked it over, noting that many other conventions – including one hosted by comics legend Stan Lee – were advertising in San Diego, so they decided to bring the SLCC van. Shortly after the convention ended, Brandenburg says they received a cease and desist letter from SDCC’s lawyers, telling the Salt Lake convention to stop using the term “Comic Con.”
“Our knee jerk reaction was that they were trying to intimidate us,” says Brandenburg. “We were not going to cease and desist using the name. We decided to go public about it.” After consulting with their lawyers, the team behind the Salt Lake Comic Con knew they had strong legal ground to stand on, but they didn’t want to go to court, they wanted to win in the court of public opinion.
Brandenburg speculates that the success of his company’s conventions might have had something to do with the sudden attention from San Diego. Their convention, FanX, occoured the same weekend of a San Diego-affiliated event, Wondercon. While Wondercon was a well-established event, the show in Salt Lake surpassed it in terms of attendees and professionals. It’s likely, then, that San Diego was intimidated by Brandenburg and Farr’s success.
The fact of the matter is, the term “Comic Con” has been in use for at least 50 years, predating the San Diego event, and is used by dozens of conventions, large and small. SDCC has attempted to sue other events, such as the Chicago Comic Con, for infringement, but has been unsuccessful. The United States Patent and Trademark Office granted a trademark on “Comic-Con” to the company that runs the San Diego event, but did not grant them a trademark on “Comic Con.”
While the Salt Lake convention was quite successful in its first year, it does not yet have the deep pockets it would need for an extended legal battle. This is why Brandenburg and Farr decided to take an unconventional (no pun intended) path.
“Everyone said that San Diego had no leg to stand on, but the only way to win this would be to outspend them on legal fees,” Brandenburg explains. “Our strategy was, if we are going to spend legal fees vs. legal fees, we wanted to be creative. We put it out to the public, challenging the cease and desist letter publically.” And, anecdotally, the fans seem to be on the side of Salt Lake’s David rather than San Diego’s Goliath.
Brandenburg says that they responded to the letter formally by the required deadline and has received a lot of attention from both local and national media. They have set up a page on their website that details the fight and outlines a great deal of evidence to bolster their claims. As for the next steps, Brandenburg says that he is waiting to see what SDCC does next, and is prepared to respond. If this case does go to court–and Brandenburg thinks that if it does, it will get thrown out–the 2014 SLCC, which kicks off on September 4, will go forward. He expects a good show, with lots of great genre guests (like the aforementioned Stan Lee).
Perhaps some of the artists and writers in attendance will be so taken by this story that they’ll craft a comic book that dramatizes the battle between the lumbering behemoth of a convention and the plucky upstart. If they do, they just have to be wary of stepping on anyone’s trademark.