The Siegel ruling is a model of clear legal reasoning, but because it’s written primarily for lawyers it leaves a number of basic concepts undefined. Among these: copyright and trademark.
Which one applies can make a huge difference in the protection your work receives. For example, the length of time for trademark protection is only ten years, but the trademark owner can keep renewing it indefinitely so long as the mark is being used in commerce. By contrast, copyright protection lasts for the life of the creator plus seventy years (in the case of works for hire, 95 to 120 years), but then that’s it–after the term expires, the material enters the public domain.
The various rules for copyright and trademark protection can get a bit confusing, but here’s a relatively simple way to distinguish between the two. Copyright protects original creative works, such as music, art, and writing. Trademark serves to identify and distinguish products in the marketplace.
Often the line between the two seems pretty obvious. For instance, this post is an original work of authorship protected by copyright; it isn’t a word, name or symbol being used to market goods or services. If you look on your computer, however, you’ll see a logo–an apple, “Vaio,” “Dell”–whose primary function is to tell you the brand.
But this is also where it gets a bit more complicated. Creative works don’t always fall neatly into one or the other category. Consider this original work of graphic design that DC registered as a trademark back in 1941:
Besides being a trademark, the graphic nonetheless also enjoys copyright protection as an original creative work. While trademark protection may seem like overkill, DC would have been foolish not to get it–not only were they using the image on covers at the time, but even after the copyright expires, the image will continue to have trademark protection so long as DC keeps the registration alive.
Here’s where the Siegel case gets particularly tricky. DC has an array of trademarks related to Superman, many of which include designs arguably derived from the copyrighted Superman material in Action Comics #1. The “S” symbol, the Superman character, his home planet and Lois Lane–these are but a few of the elements that the Siegels’ attorneys claim have been incorporated into trademarks used to identify or distinguish branded products.
Over the next few days we’ll have a lot more to say about copyright, trademark and what this means for the future of Superman. Until then, if you’re interested in finding registered trademarks for comic characters or companies, here’s the trademark search page for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.