Clash of the Comic Cons: SLCC vs SDCC

Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg, co-founders of Salt Lake Comic Con.

Negotiations for a settlement between San Diego Comic-Con and Salt Lake Comic Con have apparently broken down. The two conventions have until the end of this month to reach some sort of settlment out of court before it goes to trial in federal court.

The entire situation began in August of 2014 when San Diego Comic-Con filed suit against Salt Lake Comic Con alleging trademark infringement and “false designation of origin” in a sixteen page complaint. What this means is that SDCC is claiming that SLCC took out their trademark and began doing business with the specific intent to deceive people into thinking that San Diego Comic-Con International was actually the entity creating and operating SLCC. The premise of the suit implies that SDCC will have to prove that SLCC meant to do this, and that may not be easy.

The suit hinges on the use of the words “comic con” in their title, though SDCC’s trademark uses a hyphen and SLCC’s does not. SDCC believes that people are sufficiently confused by the words “comic con” that they think it’s all the same company – this despite dozens,  of other regional comic cons using the same naming technique for their conventions, sometimes going back decades, and the complete absence of publicity materials published by SLCC attempting to link the two conventions. On the contrary, where SDCC is run by a board, SLCC is very visibly run by founders Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenberg, who take every opportunity they get to interface with the fans to spread the word of the independent nature of their convention.

Brandenburg said in a statement Thursday that they were unwilling to give the much older and bigger San Diego Comic-Con what it wanted out of the negotiations. A trial date has not been set, but Thursday’s announcement signifies a shift in the talks between the two parties.

At stake is not only SLCC’s right to exist under their trademarked name, but the rights of dozens of other comic book conventions around the world that also use the words “comic con” in their name. Brandenburg has previously asserted that if San Diego wins this case, it has a precedent to do this to others, causing major disruption to the entire mega-show industry. If Salt Lake wins, however, it will be a victory for comic conventions everywhere, large and small.

Fortunately, SDCC’s chances of prevailing are probably slim. The words “comic con” are a generic phrase meaning any comic book themed convention, and SDCC will have to explain to the court why “comic con” is a defensible trademark even though they themselves abandoned efforts to procure a trademark for that phrase in 1999. SLCC’s trademark, in turn, falls under 15 U.S. Code § 1115, which provides a safe harbor against infringement where “…a term or device which is descriptive of and used fairly and in good faith only to describe the goods or services of such party, or their geographic region.”

SDCC’s main beef with SLCC appears to be the presence of the Salt Lake Comic Con promotional car being driven around San Diego to promote SLCC while the San Diego Comic-Con was in full swing.  The court may simply interpret SDCC’s law suit as an attempt to restrain the trade of SLCC, but it will be quite a while before we see the final judgment from the court – and there will likely be an appeal from the losing side, regardless of who wins. This battle is far from over.

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