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Image and Story (The Role of Copyright and Trademark in Comics)

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.

The storytelling method of comics primarily involves using images to tell a story. The writer and artist (and others) work together to create narrative sequential art. In a business and legal context there are two legal creations formed with every comic; a copyright and a trademark. Knowing the difference between the two and their complimentary roles will help you grow your business and might help improve your stories.

Definition and Examples
Before we talk about the relationship between copyrights and trademarks, it would help to define what we are talking about.

Basically, a copyright (normally represented in the US with the symbol © ) is the intellectual property right that gives the creator of an original work the ability to control how that work is used. In its most basic form a copyright gives the owner the right to make a copy, but it also governs who can use or exploit the work for any type of gain.

By contrast, a trademark (normally represented in the US with the symbols TM or ®) is a symbol or word used to identify a particular individual, organization, product or service in a commercial context.
The easiest way to show the difference between the two is with an example. Let’s say someone (we’ll call him Bob) writes a story about a boy whose parents are killed right in front of him on the way home from the theater. This boy grows up obsessed with fighting crime and making criminals feel the same fear he felt in that alley. He takes a secret identity and creates a persona modeled after an animal associated with the night (just for the sake of the example, let’s say this guy decides to use a bat). He creates a series of tools that utilize his symbolic totem. While many people see this mysterious man as a vigilante and a criminal, he becomes the one thing that keeps the city from descending into chaos.

Perhaps the story is a little far fetched, but as an example it works very well. There is a copyright created for every story of the masked crime fighter. The images associated with him and his story becomes trademarks.

Relationship between © and ®
When your stories create a strong emotional connection with the readers, many of them will choose to associate themselves with your creation. In modern societies, that association is expressed in material goods, especially with younger audiences. The reason that licensing and merchandise programs are tied to film and television releases is because the owners of the intellectual property are attempting to profit from the emotional creation that their stories create. In many cases, the licensing program for a character can generate far more revenue than the actual stories, if only because the potential number of merchandise products is far greater than the media outlets and they can be accessed at a far lower cost. But there will not be any demand to create merchandise if there isn’t a strong story creating a meaningful connection.

Legal and Business Impact
When a comic creator is trying to get their stories published, many of them are focusing exclusively on the terms and conditions for the actual publishing rights. Very few of them take into account the potential impact of the secondary media and merchandising rights. This makes a certain amount of sense, since very few comics ever produce a meaningful merchandise program.

The result of this lack of focus often creates a situation where a creator gives away most or all of the trademark rights to their story to a publisher that may not have any ability to exploit them properly. Even worse, the publisher may have a significant licensing program that excludes the creator from any future profits. It is beneficial for creators to protect their potential trademarks with the same diligence that they protect the copyright to the underlying story.

Impact on Story Development
Early in the development of comics, it might have been accidental that so many characters have distinctive symbols prominently displayed on their chests. It might have been pure coincidence that every item or tool that they used related back to an image that could easily be affixed to a wide array of products. But creators can be more deliberate now. The development of a story with a strong image system could improve licensing potential of a creator owned property down the line. I’m not suggesting that you compromise your art by forcing a logo where it makes no logical sense in your narrative. But there is a commercial reason why so many heroes have a symbol on their chests. It helps to sell T-shirts later.

Have fun.