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Holy Dollar Signs! Legal Considerations for Comics Creators

On Behalf of | May 2, 2014 | Business Litigation

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 announcedthat 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
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.

Rasmus is an associate attorney practicing in the Entertainment
and Music Industry Law Group
of Berenzweig
Leonard, LLP
.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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