CanI name my store after an animated character or science fiction character from movies or comics books?

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CanI name my store after an animated character or science fiction character from movies or comics books?

Asked on April 24, 2011 under Business Law, Alaska

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 10 years ago | Contributor

In a word--no.

While there may be exceptions, which I'll touch on briefly below, as a general rule, assume that a character from movies or comic books is protected by copyright and/or trademark. That meanst the owner of the rights--usually the publisher or producer/studio, though it could be the author--has the right to prevent anyone else from using that character without permission (which permission generally involves paying money).

The exceptions all involve characters that are in the public domain for one reason or another, but usually having to do with age (copyright does not last forever; and while trademark can effectively last forever, it must be maintained). For example, it's entirely possible that Captain Nemo is in the public doman because so much time has passed since 20,000 Leagues was written; Thor is in the public domain, because the character dates back centuries to old Norse myths.

HOWEVER, while the name and basic concept of Nemo or Thor may be in the public doman, the specific character designs, look, artwork, etc. used in recent movies or comics is not. So, to take Thor: you could have a store called "Thor's Longhouse." However, you can't use the artwork from the Marvel, Comico, or Image versions of Thor, because those versions of the character as so relatively new as to be still be protected. You could go back to the original myths and have an artist of your acquintance design you your own original interpretation--which you could then trademark and protect. And even then, you'd be inviting litigation (which can be costly, even if you win) if your shop was a comic shop, since Marvel, for example, would make the argument it's still unfair competition, trying to cash in on their comic character's fame. You might win, you might lose, all depending on the specifics, but whenever you use something similar to a property of a big, media-savy company, assume there's a good chance they'll at least try to challenge you.


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