|Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] SuperHero's one and all
The Superhero Trademark FAQ
With recent articles concerning DC & Marvel's joint ownership of a
registered trademark on the word superhero having made the rounds, we
checked in with CBR legal analyst Brian Cronin for an explanation of
what it all means.
by Brian Cronin
Mar 28, 2006
Long time CBR visitors may be familiar with Brian Cronin's name for the
many creator chats he's done on CBR. While by night he may be our chat
moderator extraordinaire, by day he's a lawyer in New York City.
Recently, there have been a couple of articles about the registered
trademark on the word superhero, co-owned by both DC Comics and Marvel
Comics. With that in mind, we approached Brian about republishing a FAQ
on the subject that he originally published here. Brian was happy to
share the FAQ with CBR and updated it with the latest information for
Q: What does it mean that Marvel and DC have a trademark on the word
A: It means that companies cannot enter certain areas of commerce with
the word/phrase "superhero" as part of their product name.
Q: What products does this apply to?
A: Publications, but basically comic books and magazines. Also,
cardboard stand-up figures, playing cards, paper iron-on transfers,
erasers, pencil sharpeners, pencils, notebooks, stamp albums, and costumes
Q: Does this affect our ability to use the word superhero?
A: Only if you want to make a product that fits into those categories
and sell it. So, if you want to sell (you can make it for your own
personal pleasure) a comic book called "Star Spangled Superhero
Stories," you would not be able to. But if you want to refer to your
characters as superheroes within the comic, you can do so. This is what
allows DC to refer to their character Captain Marvel as Captain Marvel
within the comic, but they cannot use the name Captain Marvel in
advertising or as the name of the comic, because Marvel holds a
registered trademark of that name.
Q: When did Marvel and DC do this?
A: 1979. They recently re-filed the trademark.
Q: How can Marvel and DC jointly own a trademark?
A: Essentially, what it came down to was that Marvel and DC both
realized the amount of money that the mark "superhero" was worth.
Therefore, they decided to trademark the word. However, both companies
understood that they wouldn't have a chance by themselves, as both
companies were using the term. A battle between the two would likely
result in neither of them being granted a trademark. So, they decided to
instead work together against any other company out there trying to use
the term, and file for a trademark together.
Q: How do you get a trademark on the word superhero?
A: Besides filing for a trademark, what Marvel and DC had to demonstrate
was that, when consumers thought of the word "superhero," that they
thought of DC or Marvel. Surveys would have proven this. Therefore, it
was considered to be reasonable that if some other product called itself
"Superhero," that a consumer would think the product came from DC or
Marvel, which, in my opinion, is a reasonable claim.
The original basis for trademarks were to protect consumers from bogus
products that they were confused into thinking came from a more famous
company. Over the years, it seems like it is instead protecting
companies from their competitors, but the basic premise is "Would a
consumer think this product came from Company A if it uses this name?"
and if the answer is "You betcha," then it is likely that Company A will
get a trademark on that word.
Q: Can't Marvel and DC just let some minor companies get away with the
use? Does it really matter?
A: One of the problems with trademarks is that companies have to defend
the use of the term, or else risk the term being considered generic, and
thereby losing the trademark protection. So, if Marvel and DC began
letting companies call their comics "Superhero ____," they would risk a
court ruling that the term was no longer associated with only Marvel and
DC, and then the term would be declared "generic," and would no longer
be protectable, which was the case for such famous words as cellophane
and kerosene, both once product names, but ultimately became known as
generic words that any company could use (The most famous example of a
company who vigorously defends their trademark is Xerox, who love to
insist that you "use a Xerox copy machine to make a copy, not make a
xerox!"). Other companies who constantly have to make this distinction
include Roller Blade brand in-line skates and Band-Aid brand bandages.
Q: Isn't superhero just a descriptive word? I thought you couldn't
trademark a descriptive word?
A: Under normal trademark law, a descriptive mark would not be granted a
trademark, but I believe that Marvel and DC can demonstrate (and, I
believe, have demonstrated it to the Trademark office, leading to the
granting of the registered mark) that the term has acquired
distinctiveness, which would allow it to still become a registered
I believe (and I think that it is an accurate belief) that the term
"superhero" has achieved the required "Secondary meaning" in the United
States to be eligible for a trademark.
When someone thinks of a superhero, they undoubtedly (which, as I said,
would be proven via the use of surveys) think of a product from either
DC or Marvel. The term "superhero" has become distinctly known as coming
from DC or Marvel, just like how Band-Aid describes a bandage, but it
has acquired secondary meaning as a brand of bandages, even though
Band-Aid certainly is a descriptive term.
Q: Could someone get around the trademark by calling their product
A: Not likely. The insertion of a hyphen would not be enough to separate
the product from the word superhero. Just like you would not be allowed
to use a mark like Ree-bok Sneakers.
Q: Are Marvel and DC evil corporations, trying to keep the little man down?
A: Perhaps, but their use of the trademark laws are really quite
standard operating business for corporations. Now, that doesn't mean
corporations aren't evil, but that's a whole different FAQ.
Thanks to Greg Schnieke, who recently posted an excellent reply on this
topic on the Digg website. It said all the things I always tell people
when this topic comes up, and the framing of his response heavily
influenced how I framed this FAQ. Check out his blog here.
If there are any other questions, feel free to e-mail me them at
bcronin-at-comicbookresources.com and maybe we'll put up an addendum in the
future, addressing your questions.
So many immigrant groups have swept through our town
that Brooklyn, like Atlantis, reaches mythological
proportions in the mind of the world - RI Safir 1998
DRM is THEFT - We are the STAKEHOLDERS - RI Safir 2002
http://www.nylxs.com - Leadership Development in Free Software
Being so tracked is for FARM ANIMALS and extermination camps,
but incompatible with living as a free human being. -RI Safir 2013
Hangout mailing list