Monday, April 12, 2010

Make-Believe Marshmallow Roasting Society

Dear Rich: If I make a cartoon world that contains a fictional organization, can I use copyright to protect the use of that organization's name and slogan in real life without having to pay for registering a trademark? For example, I made up a fictional organization named "The Guild Of Prometheus" with the slogan, "Bringing fire to Man, since Time began". (It's a marshmallow-roasting society.) Does copyright protect my use of that name and slogan if I now create The Guild Of Prometheus in real life? We had to read your question a few times to fully grok it. Can we restate it for you: How do I stop others from using the name of my fictional organization (without registering the name as a trademark)? 
The Bat Cave conundrum. Of course, The Dear Rich Staff must start by noting that you don't need a trademark registration to acquire trademark rights. We alluded to this recently when we discussed the Batcave case in which DC Comics was able to stop a comic book store from using the term "Batcave" as its trademark. DC Comics had not registered Batcave as a trademark (they claimed a "common law" trademark), yet the company was able to stop a retailer. We think DC Comics prevailed in that suit because of what the judge referred to as "the almost unmistakable association" between Batman and the Batcave. In other words, Bruce Wayne got serious props and 'spect in the Second Circuit. (BTW, did you know Bruce made wine down in the Batcave?)
Takeaway point: Your ability to achieve similar rights will almost always be in direct proportion to the popularity of your work. Since few comics achieve the popularity of Batman, we think that's a tall order for The Guild of Prometheus, no matter how many marshmallows they roast.