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Posted on Friday, May 02, 2014

Holy Dollar Signs! Legal Considerations for Comics Creators

Comics are big
business.  AMC’s hit reality show Comic Book Men was
recently renewed for a fourth season, and comics-related content continues to dominate
both in theaters and on television.  Amazon
just announced
that it would be acquiring comiXology, the leading platform for digital comics,
and both businesses and individuals are constantly finding new ways to use
webcomics to market their models, provide information
to customers, and monetize
their art.  As the comic book renaissance
continues to blossom, it is important for businesspeople to understand the many
legal issues associated with the creation, use, and protection of comics-related
content.
When it
comes to developing new content, many creators start and end their legal consideration
with thoughts of copyrighting and/or trademarking their work.  While it is important and productive
to rope off one’s original creations, artists also have to be sure they do not tread
on others’ IP rights by over-borrowing or trading on the goodwill engendered by
other content producers.  In their
excellent comic, Bound by Law, scholars at Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public
Domain explore some of the tough decisions creators face in the process of
creating new content.  One step too far,
and artists could end up like the Air
Pirates
, who came out owing Disney thousands of dollars after a successful
lawsuit over the infamous Air Pirates Funnies,
or the award-winning creators of Saga,
who had a digital issue of their series pulled
from certain web platforms due to their use of risqué imagery.  When individuals collaborate on
comics-related projects ‒ as writers and artists often do ‒ or when companies
hire outside parties to design their content, matters can get even more
complicated, as borne out in the large-scale battles over characters from the Spawn and Superman universes.
Still
more legal issues come into play when it comes time for creators to publish,
post, or sell their content.  From the
artist’s side, the terms of any printing or publishing contract should be
carefully scrutinized to ensure that the creator is getting the best deal
possible and not inadvertently signing away valuable rights.  Important items to watch out for include any
assignments of character or merchandising rights, or improper characterization
of content as “work for hire.”  From the
buyer or licensee’s side, it is important to ensure that the creator is not
trying to hold back valuable rights that would allow the creator to use or
re-sell content in ways that would result in a loss of the benefit of the
bargain.  In every case, a full and
accurate description of both the content at issue and the applicable pricing
schemes will cut down on confusion.
Once
content is made available to the public, yet another set of issues comes into
play.  Principal among these is the need
to start policing the creator’s brand.
Comics ‒ especially webcomics ‒ lend themselves to easy appropriation,
and creators can lose revenue when their content is inappropriately
copied
.  Creators also have to guard
against their content’s being twisted in ways that might harm the creator’s
brand; My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a far cry from My
Little Pony:
Fighting is Magic, and brand-conscious parties must be on constant guard
against tarnishment.
The
world of comics is primed to yield big financial rewards for savvy
business people, but it is critical that both creators and content users stay on
top of those legal issues that might crop up in comics-related transactions,
and control for them as much as possible.

Ryen
Rasmus
is an associate attorney practicing in the Entertainment
and Music Industry Law Group
of Berenzweig
Leonard, LLP
.  He can be reached at RRasmus@BerenzweigLaw.com.


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