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Superheroes causing headaches for in-house lawyers

Posted by: Laurence Simons 07/02/13

While the majority of people in legal careers probably eschewed the fripperies of youth, penning their first journal article as a fresh-faced young three-year-old and spending lunchtime writing and rewriting their personal statement for university as their six-year-old peers frolicked outside, for others those halcyon days can be represented to some extent by comic books.

Colourful depictions of a reality where good and evil are clearly delineated and the heroes always triumph, comics recreate the innocence of childhood, before the murky compromises and moral equivocations of adulthood become a depressing reality.

However, this prelapsarian bubble has been popped recently by the news that in-house lawyers at Marvel and DC - the world's two biggest publisher of comic books, boasting famous titles such as Spider-Man, the Avengers and Batman - are locked in a trademark battle with American comic creator Ray Felix.

In an interview with Crisp Comic, Mr Felix, founder of the Bronx Heroes Con, explained that the corporations first contacted him with a cease and desist letter in 2010 and have continued to put pressure on him not to use the word 'superhero' in his books.

This is because DC and Marvel jointly own the word superhero and all variations on it, having renewed their trademark on it in 2006.

While it's unclear what righteous crime-fighters such as Batman would think of the Orwellian concept of word-ownership - given his pro-surveillance and vigilante violence stance, he'd probably love it - it's obvious that both parties have no intention of backing down.

"In their eyes they own every variation of the word regardless of spelling, variation in a statement or sentence in the English language or foreign. Registration marks do not work that way," declared Mr Felix.

But Jonathan D Reichman, the trademark attorney for both Marvel and DC, told the Guardian that the company plans to amicably resolve the issue with Mr Felix and several other parties who have been cautioned over the use of the word.

He explained that the companies do not wish to prevent reasonable use of the word but cannot let it be taken up in a commercial context by anyone other than them.

"It's our responsibility to police the trademark and ensure the term is not used as a trademark without our authority and consent," said Mr Reichman, possibly striking a heroic pose with his arm in the air, while scanning the horizon for potential criminal misuse of the word superhero. With great power comes great responsibility.