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Comic book characters like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Harry Potter, etc. have become part of our daily lives ever since they were created via comic books and later incorporated through television shows, merchandise, and more recently movies. From soft toys, video games to movies all such methods provide various avenues to the owners and creators of such characters to earn money and goodwill in this fiercely competitive market.
The artists behind such characters use their imagination, intellect, and imagination and provide such characters with certain specific and unique attributes such as, costume, alter ego, superpowers, backstory, etc. with which they are uniquely identified with when the consumers read about them or watch a TV show or a movie based on such characters. These unique attributes also give the idea of the artist an expression. It is due to these reasons that the creator/artist to protect such character to avoid infringement, copying, and misappropriation by third parties.
The production companies, advertisers, licensees, and business houses, who invest a substantial amount of money to obtain rights of such characters for using such characters through various media like TV, movies, radio, merchandising, shall also have a genuine concern over infringement of their rights over such characters by any third party. It is due to these reasons that it becomes very important that such comic book characters are also included in the ambit of Intellectual Property Rights.
It is very important to understand that when do such comic book characters come under the ambit of copyright and trademark-related legal protection and what happens to characters which are already in the public domain but may be used subsequently in new copyrighted work.
Characters may be differentiated into two categories: graphic, and fictional. Where a graphic character can be depicted simply by a cartoon, or another form of graphic representation with its physical representation and characterization being visually obvious for the readers, a fictional character is a word portrait of which the physical appearance and characterization reside in the mind of the reader. Since images are more easily identifiable, retained in the memory of the readers, and characterized than literary descriptions, it is are easier to afford them legal protection. David B. Feldman goes as far as to opine that fictional characters’ are second-class citizens in the world of intellectual property.
Copyright protection under the ambit of ‘artistic work’ can’t be afforded to such graphical characters since such characters and their personalities evolve from various episodes that the artist/creator creates, as it can’t be visually expressed and can only be perceived by the human mind. The copyright law though can protect such expressions of the character which can be graphically represented through drawings, colors, art, storyboard, etc.
In the case of Hill vs. Whalen Mortell, 220 F 359 (S D NY, 1914), in which the court had held that the stage characters of Nutt and Giff were copies of the plaintiff’s characters Mutt and Jeff since everybody viewing these characters was able to make the connection.
In another such case of protection to graphic characters, the case of Detective Comics vs. Bruns Publication, 111 F 2d 432 (2d Cir, 1940) comes to mind. In this case, the defendants had created a character called ‘Wonderman’ which had the same physical and emotional attributes as the Plaintiff’s popular comic character ‘Superman’. It was held by the court that the defendant had also copied the Plaintiff’s character’s pictorial and literary details. The court said that protection to characters can be given only if they have been portrayed in detail and they have been converted from an idea into a visual expression. In the present case, the idea of ‘superhuman powers’ can be used by anyone but the character must have a different personality than an already existing one.
In another landmark judgment of Walt Disney vs. Air Pirates, 581 F.2d 751 (9th Cir, 1978), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 1132 (1979), the court had held that a two-step test needed to be carried out to determine if copyright infringement has taken place. Firstly the visual similarities of the characters are analyzed and in the second step the personalities of the cartoon characters.
The second step is to be done through the ‘character delineation’ test which was developed in the case of Nichols vs. Universal Pictures, 45 F 2d 119 (2d Cir 1930), cert denied, 282 US, 902 (1931), this test is used to determine if the character in question is distinct and unique from other characters in such a way that it warrants copyright and trademark protection. It means that this is a penalty on authors and creators who do not put in effort or intellect on making their characters distinct from others.
In the Indian case of Malayala Manorama vs. V T Thomas, AIR 1989 Ker 49, the court had held that V T Thomas could continue drawing the characters of ‘Boban’ and ‘Molly’ despite leaving MalayalaManorama’s employment since the characters had been created by Mr. Thomas before entering into employment with Manorama and the publishing house did not create or use their artistic imagination or intellect to create the aforementioned characters so their copyright will only be limited to the extent of the drawings made using the character, but the copyright over the character would remain with Mr. Thomas.
While fictional characters are generally associated with copyright protection, increasing commercialization has meant that the intellectual property in these characters is no longer limited to the artistic works that created them, but has also extended to associated goods and services, which has benefited tremendously from the immense appeal and popularity of these fictional characters. This is known as character merchandising. The obvious consequence of the fact that the goodwill of these characters performs both, source-identifying as well as promotional functions meant that in most cases, they have been protected with trademarks.
Fictional characters have three significant components: name, physical or visual appearance, physical attributes, personality traits, or characterization. In the case of Anderson vs. Stallone, 11 USP Q 2d 1161 (C.D. Calif. 1989), the court had held that the ‘Physical’ and ‘Emotional’ characterization of the character ‘Rocky’ were set in such detail that they were highly delineated, distinguishable and unique and imprinted in the mind of the viewers.
However in the case of Warner Brothers Pictures vs. Columbia Broadcasting Systems, 216 F 2d 945, 104 US P Q 103 (9th Cor. 1954), cert. denied, 348 US 971, 99 L Ed 756, 75 S. Ct. 532 (1955), the test of ‘story being told’ was applied. In this case, the court had held that copyright protection would only be applied to the characters only if the story revolves around a particular character.
In another case of Silverman vs. Columbia Broadcasting Systems, the concept of ‘characters entering the public domain and later acquiring new copyrighted work’ came into question. In this case, it was held that the character will be entitled to protection once it enters the public domain unless new traits or characterizations have been added to it in subsequent works.
In conclusion, I would like to say that it is clear from the various judgments discussed here that in the case of graphic characters courts have had a lenient approach in granting protection because of their visual impact, as opposed to fictional characters where protection has been granted only if it is proved beyond doubt that they are distinct and distinguishable. Another aspect is that under Indian law ‘character’ has not been included in the definition of ‘artistic work’ and similarly under the definition of ‘literary work’ the work to be protected must be written down. It is hoped that the ambit of artistic and literary work is expanded to include characters as well.
About the Author: Aditya Vardhan, Trademark Associate, Khurana and Khurana Advocates and IP Attorneys, firstname.lastname@example.org