Considering the tiresome glut of superhero movies hitting the theaters over the last decade, it's no surprise that two of the biggest names in the industry trademarked the term superhero back in the 70s. It was something that a small-time entrepreneur had to battle against almost four decades later.
It was a win for the little guy in the end. Managing to get the makers of Thor, Iron Man, and Superman to back off? Who's the superhero now?
Zero to Hero
Graham Jules, British businessman and law student, successfully outlasted DC and Marvel after the two companies sent him a joint cease-and-desist letter after word got out that Jules planned to publish his self-help book Business Zero to Superhero. It turns out that both companies filed for joint trademark ownership of the word "superhero."
Jules fought back against the companies and relied on little more than a textbook covering the basics of intellectual property. He argued that the word superhero had entered into the public lexicon and that through repeated usage, the companies had lost standing to bring suit as the trademark wasn't valid.
DC and Marvel offered Jules "a couple of thousand" to settle the dispute, but Jules stood his ground. And then, according to the ABA Journal, just before a hearing was to be held before the Intellectual Property Office in London, the comic-book interest groups gave up, citing "commercial reasons."
Big Player Shakedown?
This case has the characteristics of a legal department of a large company gone awry. In Graham's case, one could hardly point to a likelihood of commercial confusion. No one in their right mind would confuse Jules' everyman "superhero-small-time business owner" with Batman or The Incredible Hulk.
More importantly, this underscores the notion that words do not enjoy bullet-proof trademark status under all circumstances. In Jules' case, however, it came down to a question of resources -- and just how ridiculous an argument the industry was willing to make.
Kudos to Jules in his victory.