MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Who owns a word? That burning question might have interested trademark lawyers more than the loyal readers of comic books until recently. Earlier this year the publishers of a relatively small comic book called Super Hero Happy Hour received a letter from two major comic book companies saying they co-own the trademark on the word superhero. So the title was changed to Hero Happy Hour. NPR's Neda Ulabay reports.
(Soundbite from Superman radio broadcast):
Unidentified Man: Look, it's a giant bird,
Unidentified Woman: It's a plane,
Unidentified Man: It's Superman.
NEDA ULABAY reporting:
It's a relatively new word. Superhero entered our vernacular during the advent of radio serials like this.
(Soundbite of Superman radio broadcast):
Unidentified Man: A being no larger than an ordinary man but possessed of powers and abilities never before realized on earth.
ULABAY: The word superhero was trademarked by Marvel and DC Comics in the 1960s, says Michael Lovitz. He's a lawyer who focuses on intellectual property like comic books.
Mr. MICHAEL LOVITZ (Lawyer): Marvel and DC created this category of adventurers, of costumed adventurers.
ULABAY: But Marvel and DC Comics super lawyers will leave you alone if you use the word superhero casually. You can even use it in a comic as long as that word stays off the cover.
Mr. LOVITZ: The law basically says that no one has the right to exclusively appropriate a word.
ULABAY: Neither DC Comics nor Marvel agreed to comment for this story. Ronald Coleman is a lawyer who blogs about intellectual property issues. He says both companies are so powerful that they constitute an industry duopoly. He finds preposterous any claims that their brands might be comprised by unauthorized use of the word superhero.
Mr. RONALD COLEMAN (Lawyer): People in the comic book area know very well who are Marvel's superhero's, who are DC's superheroes, and who are indie comic book superheroes. There's zero chance of actual confusion.
ULABAY: For Marvel and DC to protect the word superhero as a trademark, he says, it takes...
Mr. COLEMAN: A little bit of audacity and a lot of lawyers on retainer with a generous mixture of judicial indifference.
ULABAY: Meanwhile, Hero Happy Hour is in the early stages of being developed for television. Creator and writer Dan Taylor told NPR he was heartened by the support of people in the comics community. And, he said, at least the controversy helped put his comic on the map.
Neda Ulabay, NPR News.
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