SAN DIEGO — A jury has found that Salt Lake Comic Con founders Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg, along with their company, violated a trademark when they named their fan convention a "comic con."
However, the jury decided that the trademark was not willfully violated, and only awarded $20,000 of the $12 million that San Diego Comic-Con had asked for in damages.
The decision came at the end of an eight-day jury trial and three years of legal maneuvering. The four men and two women on the jury deliberated for about nine hours before reaching a verdict.
And with an estimated 140 other fan conventions across the country calling themselves comic cons, the impact of the decision could be felt nationwide.
Attorneys for San Diego Comic-Con, who have been quiet throughout the case, declined to comment on the victory as they left the courtroom Friday afternoon. A spokesman for the iconic comic and pop culture convention released a written statement Friday night praising the jury's decision.
"We have invested substantial time, talent and resources in our brand resulting in worldwide recognition of the Comic-Con convention held annually in San Diego," the statement said. "San Diego Comic Convention respects the decision of the jury. From the beginning all that we asked of the defendants was to stop using our Comic-Con trademarks. Today we obtained a verdict that will allow us to achieve this. For that we are grateful."
Meanwhile, the Salt Lake organizers saw some vindication in the jury's findings that they hadn't willfully violated the trademarks and in the relatively small amount they awarded to San Diego.
"With the damages being nominal like that, I think the jury was saying, 'OK, we want to protect these marks, but you know what, Salt Lake didn't do any damage here,'" Farr said.
Farr and Brandenburg now have 30 days to decide whether they will appeal the jury's decision, a question they said they are now considering.
"The plan is to make the best decision we can in the next 30 days," Brandenburg said. "But mostly, we're going to spend the holidays with our family and have this behind us."
The Salt Lake group also has an ongoing action with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office seeking to invalidate San Diego's "comic-con" trademark. That effort had been stayed as the litigation was ongoing.
"There are a lot of other people that are worried about what it means for them, with the term comic con. And for us in Salt Lake, we don't know what that means as well," Farr said.
"This isn't over," Brandenburg added.
Meanwhile, enforcement of Salt Lake Comic Con's name doesn't start immediately, Brandenburg said, and Salt Lake's 2018 event is already on the books for Sept. 6-8.
"I don't think $20,000 is going to impact our ability to put on the next show. It just impacts what the name of it may be," Brandenburg said.
The two conventions have been dueling in court since the summer of 2014 when San Diego Comic-Con filed a cease-and-desist order and lawsuit against the Utah event, which was in its first year. The lawsuit named Farr and Brandenburg as individual defendants, alongside their company, Dan Farr Productions.
In closing arguments Thursday, Callie Bjurstrom, an attorney for San Diego Comic-Con International, claimed that Salt Lake Comic Con's two founders were aware the phrase "comic-con" was trademarked, but deliberately and maliciously used it to brand their event in hopes of benefiting from years of work that San Diego had put into its convention's reputation.
"This case is about stealing, taking something that is not yours, something you have no right to. It's about right, and it's about wrong," Bjurstrom told jurors.
Bjurstrom emphasized that Salt Lake organizers never contacted San Diego Comic-Con about using the term but decided that because other events were already infringing on the trademark, they could, too.
She went on to say that any other fan conventions using the term comic con without permission — a list of about 140 such events was presented during the trial — were "infringers," but that San Diego Comic-Con tries to avoid lengthy and expensive legal battles.
"We are pursuing the worst offenders first," Bjurstrom explained.
San Diego Comic-Con, which has been holding events since 1970, has a trademark on "comic-con" with a hyphen, but was unsuccessful in its 1995 bid to trademark "comic con," with a space. The unhyphenated name "Comic Con International," as well as the event's iconic "eye logo," are also protected by trademark.
The event maintains that its trademarks cover the term "comic con" in all its forms.
Through the 29-question verdict form, the jury ruled that by using the "comic con" name, the Salt Lake defendants had violated all three trademarks.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Brandenburg testified that based on the frequent, nationwide use of the term by dozens of events that were clearly unaffiliated with each other, he and his business parter genuinely saw the term as generic and useable.
"It led me to believe we could call our company Salt Lake Comic Con," Brandenburg said.
Michael Katz, an attorney for Salt Lake Comic Con, emphasized during closing arguments Thursday that about 140 fan conventions also use comic con in their names, generally paired with an identifier for the area they're in, and that the attendees, vendors and celebrities throughout the circuit are all using the term generically.
"From the standpoint of people out there, comic con is generic," Katz said.
Katz also argued that San Diego's thriving brand has been unharmed by Salt Lake's use of the term, and it appears less than 1 percent of attendees have been confused about whether the two events are affiliated.
Bjurstrom also emphasized the strength of San Diego's brand, but claimed that after 45 years of work to build its reputation, the organization has been tarnished and exploited as Salt Lake Comic Con has used the term.
San Diego Comic-Con wanted more than $12 million in damages from Salt Lake, including over $9 million for a three-month "corrective advertising campaign" to dispel confusion.
Since it started in 2013, Salt Lake Comic Con has brought in nearly $3 million in profits, before paying its legal fees, according to testimony during the trial.
In his closing arguments, Katz questioned the amount San Diego was seeking, noting that San Diego authorities said during trial the organization generally spends between $20,000 and $30,000 for a month of advertising.