SAN DIEGO (CN) – During closing arguments Thursday, San Diego Comic-Con’s attorney called the use of its trademark by Salt Lake Comic Con “a slap in the face” before asking jurors to award the decades-old comic convention $12 million in damages.
Callie Bjurstrom, an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, told the seven San Diego jurors tasked with deciding the case that the Utah event “stole” the brand San Diego Comic-Con spent decades building.
“This is a brand that we must protect from these defendants and anyone else who seeks to exploit or hijack it,” Bjurstrom said.
While Bjurstrom said the trademark dispute is not about San Diego Comic-Con’s enforcement of its mark or whether it would go after others using the mark without permission, she said her client has the “right to decide who to pursue and when.”
“We are pursuing the worst offenders first and that is defendants,” Bjurstrom said of Salt Lake Comic Con and its co-founders Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg.
Her comments suggest what many comic convention operators and fans across the country worry about – that San Diego Comic-Con will come for them next.
Farr and Brandenburg maintain they don’t believe the trademark is enforceable because it’s become generic and is used throughout the industry and by the media to describe comic conventions – more than 140 comic cons span the country from coast to coast.
But Bjurstrom told jurors in U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia’s courtroom that “damning emails” in which Farr and Brandenburg discuss “hijacking the Comic-Con brand” as part of their “magic formula” showed their “malicious intent” when selecting to name their event Salt Lake Comic Con.
“They got into the comic and popular arts convention business to make a quick buck,” Bjurstrom said.
San Diego Comic-Con has a very high brand recognition rate, according to Bjurstrom, with 83 percent of consumers recognizing Comic-Con as a brand according to a study commissioned by San Diego Comic-Con during the course of litigation. And Bjurstrom said the defendants knew that – Brandenburg even testified Wednesday that he believed Comic-Con was a brand.
“There is only one Comic-Con and it’s right here in San Diego,” Bjurstrom said.
She asked the jury to award San Diego Comic-Con $9.62 million in damages to be used in a “corrective advertising” campaign to separate San Diego Comic-Con from Salt Lake Comic Con. Bjurstrom also asked for $2.56 million in damages, which accounts for Salt Lake Comic Con’s profits.
Salt Lake Comic Con attorney Michael Katz, with Maschoff Brennan, said his clients’ use of the term Comic Con caused no harm to San Diego Comic-Con’s trademark, which he referred to as “thriving” and becoming “more valuable over time.”
“We are firm in our conviction that we did nothing wrong, that we stole no intellectual property, that we caused no harm to their brand,” Katz said.
The way comic con is used in the marketplace by other events, which Katz called the “comic con circuit,” makes the term generic and shows there is no confusion due to multiple events having comic con in their name, Katz said.
“You have to use your judgment and common sense over what it means for over 140 events to use that name,” Katz told the jurors.
“San Diego Comic-Con is a fantastic event, it’s the Mecca of comic cons, but it by far and away is not the only temple.”
Katz said “no one in their right mind would confuse Salt Lake Comic Con with San Diego Comic-Con,” noting San Diego’s event tickets fetch much higher prices and typically sell out in hours, if not minutes. Fans, celebrities and vendors who want to attend San Diego Comic-Con would not be “confused about where they’re going” through Salt Lake’s use of comic con, Katz said.
“We’re not attacking San Diego, we’re defending ourselves and we’re also stating the truth. We just wanted to do business,” Katz said.
As for San Diego Comic-Con’s requested damages, Katz called the $9.6 million “corrective advertising” request an “outrageously big number.”
He pointed out San Diego Comic-Con has only spent $3.9 million on advertising between 2002 and 2017 and noted companies and celebrities often pay San Diego Comic-Con to attend the event or be associated with it, which Katz said is further evidence the event’s branding is not being harmed by others’ use of comic con.
“We have never told the world we are San Diego Comic-Con. We have only told the world who we are,” Katz said.
Jurors took up the case Thursday afternoon and deliberations were expected to continue into Friday.