SAN DIEGO — As he and his new business partner considered starting a comic and pop culture convention in Utah in early 2013, Bryan Brandenburg fired up his computer.
He reviewed websites of other events, news stories about their conventions and online industry forums discussing them all.
What he found, he testified in court Wednesday, was inconsistency.
Varied spellings, differences in website designs and functionality, and distinct logos and themes all led Brandenburg to believe the events spread all across the country were all independent of each other, and many identified themselves as "comic cons."
"It led me to believe we could call our company Salt Lake Comic Con," Brandenburg testified.
Brandenburg and Dan Farr, the founders of Salt Lake Comic Con, have spent the past three years embroiled in a trademark lawsuit over the name that they chose. The case is now before a San Diego federal jury, which is expected to begin deliberations Thursday following closing arguments.
Attorneys for Salt Lake Comic Con rested their defense at the end of Brandenburg's testimony Wednesday. Farr testified earlier in the week.
San Diego Comic-Con International, the California-based icon in geek culture, claims in its lawsuit that the Utah organizers were violating trademark laws and trying to profit from its success when they branded their event as a "comic con."
With dozens of similar events around the country calling themselves comic cons, the outcome of the case could have far-reaching effects.
Less than a year after Salt Lake's first convention, the well-known California nonprofit filed a cease-and-desist order and lawsuit against Salt Lake Comic Con when Brandenburg and Farr drove a branded Audi around San Diego during its annual event there.
San Diego Comic-Con, which has been holding events since 1970, has a trademark on "comic-con" with a hyphen, but was unsuccessful in its 1995 bid to trademark "comic con," with a space. The event maintains, however, that its trademark covers the term "comic con" in all its iterations. The trademarks on its logo and the name "Comic Con International" do not include hyphens.
Salt Lake Comic Con, on the other hand, argues it didn't believe it was using a protected form of the word when it chose the name. Brandenburg and Farr claim the term is now so widely used to describe similar events that it has become too generic to qualify for a trademark. The Utah event has filed a countersuit of its own.
On cross examination Wednesday, Callie Bjurstrom, an attorney for San Diego, questioned Brandenburg on whether he reached out to anyone at San Diego Comic-Con to confirm whether they took issue with the name when Salt Lake chose it.
Brandenburg confirmed he did not.
She also presented two emails from Brandenburg, sent in the early days of Salt Lake Comic Con, discussing the businesses' plan to "hijack" the popularity of comic con. One of the emails went on to clarify, "Comic con is just the abbreviation for comic convention."
"Mr Brandenburg, that's what you have done here, isn't it? You have taken something that isn't yours and you are using it for your own purposes, isn't it?" Bjurstrom pressed.
"No, it is not," Brandenburg replied.
Bjurstrom also alleged that Brandenburg didn't do the research he talked about until after receiving the cease and desist order from San Diego Comic-Con. Brandenburg replied that was "absolutely not true."
San Diego's defense has also pointed to an online survey conducted by one of its expert witnesses, which found that "over 82 percent of the survey participants understand that 'Comic-Con' is a brand name and not a common or generic name. … In fact, consumers recognize 'Comic-Con' as a brand at a higher rate than they recognize Jell-O as a brand," according to court filings.
However, Andrew Baker, associate professor of marketing at San Diego State University, reviewed the survey for Salt Lake Comic Con and testified Wednesday that the results are flawed.
Because of risks he saw of "good participant bias," and because the online survey didn't include a way to weed out unreliable responses from people who may have attempted to fill out the survey for money, Baker criticized the results as inconclusive.
"This study cannot be relied upon to tell us the percentage of people who think comic con is a brand," Baker testified.
In opening arguments in the trial that began last week, Bjurstrom emphasized that Salt Lake could still hold the same kind of event while using a different name, according to reports by Courthouse News. She claimed the Utah organizers identified their convention as a comic con was a way to "steal the Comic-Con brand."
"You don't need to use 'Comic-Con' in your name to identify your comic and popular-arts convention," she said.
But on questioning from Michael Katz, one of Salt Lake's attorneys, Brandenburg said Wednesday he and Farr wanted the same notoriety for their event that they saw in the events they researched in 2013.
"It was my observation that there was a national comic con circuit and we wanted to be part of it," Brandenburg said.
But before Brandenburg arrived in the courtroom to testify Wednesday, concerns about what his testimony might include raised concerns from the opposing side and a stern warning from U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia.
While jurors in the case were out of the courtroom Wednesday, attorneys for San Diego Comic-Con read a Facebook post to the judge, posted by the Salt Lake event in an apparent effort to rally fans.
Bjurstrom speculated the remarks could be a deliberate attempt to cause a mistrial.
"I think this is a highly inappropriate post," Bjurstrom said. "It is just a complete attempt to taint whoever they can reach."
The post announced that Brandenburg would take the witness stand to show that "comic con is owned by the people, by all the fans that experience the joy and celebration of comic con in cities all over the world."
Battaglia prohibited such arguments in the trial based on objections raised beforehand by San Diego. He warned that if Brandenburg intended to make any such statements during his testimony, "tell him to bring his toothbrush with him."
The same applied to any of Salt Lake's other witnesses, Battaglia indicated.
"I will put them in jail if they violate this order. They are not to escalate this case into a war involving the world," Battaglia said.3 comments on this story
In an earlier order, Battaglia had also barred Farr and Brandenburg from discussing the case, including on their personal social media pages. That order was struck down in October by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found it violated First Amendment protections of free speech.
"The circuit seems to believe people can say whatever they want in the world and in the media, but they don't get that privilege in my courtroom," Battaglia noted Wednesday.
According to the Facebook post from Wednesday, if Salt Lake Comic Con loses at trial, it intends to appeal.