Court Allows San Diego Comic-Con's Suit Against The Salt Lake City Comic Con To Move Forward
from the groan dept
A few months ago, we alerted our readers that a trademark dispute between the San Diego Comic-Con and a company producing a Salt Lake City Comic Con, originally filed in 2014, was still going on. In fact, the district court hearing the case just recently ruled on several motions from both parties, including motions for judicial notice (essentially having the court affirm basic facts about the case), motions to exclude expert testimony, and motions for summary judgement. On the face of it, the news is mostly bad for the Salt Lake City convention, with nearly every ruling coming down against it. However, digging into the ruling itself, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
As for the bad news, it seems to be mostly of the Salt Lake City Comic Con’s own making, or the making of its legal team. The court points out that the defendant’s lawyers motion and defenses are all over the place, in some places arguing for generecide — or that “comic con” has become a generic term — while in others arguing that “comic con” is generic ab initio — or that the term was generic even prior to San Diego Comic-Con’s initial use of it. It’s an important distinction for a couple of reasons, including that the defenses SLC has stated it will make revolve around genericide, yet much of the evidence in the motions in this ruling revolve around generic ab initio and, more importantly, the 9th Circuit doesn’t have any precedent or acknowledgement of generic ad initio as a matter of law, and this district court is governed by 9th Circuit precedent.
Unfortunately for Defendants, the Ninth Circuit has not recognized a genericness ab initio theory of defense. Instead, the Ninth Circuit very clearly states that there are only five categories of trademarks: (1) generic; (2) descriptive; (3) suggestive; (4) arbitrary; and (5) fanciful. KP Permanent Make-Up, Inc. v. Lasting Impression I, Inc., 408 F.3d 596, 602 (9th Cir. 2005). No case law from this circuit separates genericness into two different types nor have Defendants provided the Court with Ninth Circuit precedent that adopts their arguments. Accordingly, as there is no dispositive basis or Ninth Circuit jurisprudence to accept an argument revolving around a generic ab initio defense, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on this contention.
So, yeah, not a real good look on the part of the SLC’s legal team. Later in the ruling, the court goes on to rule against SLC’s motion for summary judgement, which was essentially asking the court to rule that “comic con” is now a generic term. The court declined to do so, moving the case forward. But it’s important to note that the court, in a ruling that otherwise dealt somewhat harshly with SLC’s lawyers, makes a point of noting that it did not deny the motion because Salt Lake City doesn’t have the facts on its side. Instead, the court notes that in motions like this, favorable weight is generally given both to the plaintiff and to any holder of a valid trademark (the plaintiff again, in this case), and that’s what precludes the court from granting a summary judgement. The ruling goes on to state:
After a careful review of the parties’ moving papers, the applicable law, and the evidence on the record, the Court finds that Defendants have satisfied their burden of demonstrating a genuine issue of material fact as to genericide. “Federal courts  view usage of [a] term by competitors in the industry as strong evidence of how the public perceives them.” Classic Foods Int’l Corp. v. Kettle Foods, Inc., 468 F. Supp. 2d 1181, 1190 (C.D. Cal. 2007). “The more members of the public see a term used by competitors in the field, the less likely they will be to identify the term with one particular producer.” Id. Here, Defendants produce evidence that demonstrates that “comic cons” are held in nearly every state of the United States including New York Comic Con, Amazing Arizona Comic Con, Emerald City Comic Con, and Tampa Bay Comic Con. (Doc. No. 223-1 at 39, 101, 129, 160.) This evidence of over 100 competitors using the unhyphenated form of Plaintiff’s trademark strongly suggests that the mark is generic. Consequently, this is persuasive evidence of genericide. See CG Roxane LLC v. Fiji Water Co. LLC, 569 F. Supp. 2d 1019, 1027 (N.D. Cal. 2008) (holding that a competitors use of a mark is compelling evidence of genericness as it reflects how the public identifies the term).
Due to that, the court denied San Diego Comic-Con’s motion to deny SLC that defense. So, when the trial moves forward now, it should be clear exactly what the defense by Salt Lake City will be: generecide. Given this ruling’s opinion of the facts on that question, it appears that defense will be quite strong.
It’s something of a canary in the coal mine for the SDCC, in other words. I somewhat expect we’ll now hear more talks of a settlement before this goes much further.