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July 12, 2004
Comic Book Free Expression
One might not think it, but comic books have not only become a major cultural force through movies, but have led to some extremely interesting intellectual property and free expression cases. Anymore cases and comics will soon have to have their own chapter in the lawschool textbooks right next to the chapter on Scientology.
In the last few years, there have been a number of obscenity charges against comic books (see, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: Casefiles). There have also been some extremely interesting intellectual property cases. For example, there was the Winter Brothers case, in which the famous blues musicians sued a comic book publisher and its artists for their portrayal in a comic book as half-worm/half-man creatures (citing right of publicity issues among others) (California Supreme Court Rules Jonah Hex Comic Entitled to First Amendment Protection).
Comic book artist turned cultural entrepreneur Todd McFarlane is most famous for his creation of the multimedia character Spawn. He is also famous for his additions to the comic book lawsuit canon. Earlier this year an important decision regarding the ownership of comic book characters was decided against him. Interesting issues include the statute of limitations for copyright and copyright for a joint creation. Scrivener's Error has a good summary (Character Defects).
The second case of interest is hockey player Tony Twist's lawsuit against McFarlane for using Twist's name for a comic book mafia boss. The case was thrown out twice, by a Missouri district court and the state appeals court, but was reinstated by Missouri's Supreme Court. An appeal to the US Supreme Court was denied.
The case raises important First Amendment issues regarding the use of the names of public figures in works of art, so it is unfortunate that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the second jury trial goes against McFarlane (Tony Twist wins $15 million verdict). The AP also has wirestory regarding the decision (Tony Twist wins battle over name). Of course, the case isn't over yet, as McFarlane intends to continue to appeal.
via How Appealing
UPDATE Prof. Eugene Volokh, who wrote an amicus in the case, has some informative comments (Naming a character after a famous person costs writer $15 million).
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