SAN DIEGO — The question of whether Salt Lake's popular comics and nerd culture convention violated trademark laws when it named itself a "comic con" is now before a jury.
And with dozens of similar events across the country using the term, both with and without permission from San Diego Comic-Con International, the verdict in the case likely will be felt nationwide.
The two conventions have been locked in legal combat since the summer of 2014, when the organizers of Salt Lake Comic Con, still in the first year of their company, drove their branded Audi to San Diego Comic-Con International at the height of its longstanding annual event.
But the Salt Lake organizers maintain that based on the long list of similar events using the name around the country, they had every reason to believe they could call themselves a comic con. They insist the widely used term has become too generic to be protected by trademark, a situation known as "genericide."
The four-man, three-woman jury began deliberations just before 1 p.m. Thursday, the eighth day of trial. Jurors considered the case for about three hours before leaving for the day, with deliberations set to resume Friday morning.
In a blistering closing argument Thursday, Callie Bjurstrom, an attorney for San Diego Comic-Con International, accused the Salt Lake organizers of deliberately and maliciously capitalizing on the brand that took the nonprofit organization more than 45 years to build.
And it will take more than $12 million in damages from Salt Lake Comic Con to repair that brand, Bjurstrom said.
"We are not interested in making money off of this; that's not what we're after. We just want our brand back," she said. "I know that seems like a lot of money, but the harm is real."
By comparison, since it started in 2013, Salt Lake Comic Con has brought in nearly $3 million in profits, before paying its legal fees, according to testimony during the trial.
Salt Lake Comic Con's founders, Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg, are also being sued as individuals.
If the jurors find in San Diego's favor, they will also be required to decide how much in damages to award.
If Salt Lake Comic Con loses, it will appeal the decision, according to a post on the organization's Facebook page Thursday.
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, and Bjurstrom emphasized to jurors that when it comes to infringement, "the hyphen doesn't matter."
Pointing to emails she called "a smoking gun" in the case, Bjurstrom alleged Farr and Brandenburg didn't unknowingly violate the trademark, but used the term deliberately in order to build up their own event.
In the messages, Farr and Brandenburg discussed "hijacking" the comic con brand as "part of our magic formula" for success.
"This case is about stealing, taking something that is not yours, something you have no right to. It's about right, and it's about wrong," Bjurstrom insisted.
She also pointed to Salt Lake Comic Con's overnight success.
"It took San Diego Comic Convention over 30 years to reach 70,000 attendees. The defendants got there in just one convention. The hijacking worked," Bjurstrom said.
But Michael Katz, Salt Lake Comic Con's attorney, noted that, as Brandenburg explained in one email, the founders saw "comic con" as an abbreviation for "comic convention." They were referring to the circuit of 140 fan conventions scattered across the country, he said, not to San Diego Comic-Con.
"The comic con world is large, and when you factor in that some of these events have 60,000 to 100,000 attendees," Katz said, "… that's a massive world out there."
Farr and Brandenburg maintain they did nothing wrong, didn't infringe on any trademarks and didn't damage San Diego's organization, according to Katz.
"We're here to clear our name," he insisted.
While Bjurstrom argued the similarities between Salt Lake Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con's names create a likelihood of confusion, Katz maintained the evidence presented in the case shows fewer than 100 people out of hundreds of thousands have been confused.
And among all the attendees, vendors and celebrities participating in the long list of conventions in dozens of cities, Katz argued that "comic con" is being referred to generically.
"It's place name, to say where they were, and comic con, to say what they were.' That's the reality of the marketplace," he said.
Katz added that when people buy their tickets to those different conventions, the vast majority of them know exactly which city and which event they're going to.
Industrywide generic use of the term comic con goes back more than just a few years, Katz said. As an example, he showed the jurors a clipping from San Diego Comic-Con's 1983 souvenir program, which included a quote from then president Shel Dorf saying that when he moved to San Diego, "I decided the West Coast needed a good comic con."
As far as San Diego's trademarks on its iconic "eye logo," showing a cartoon eye peering out from the event name, and its trademark of "Comic Con International," Katz argued there is no similarity to Salt Lake's logo and name.
But Bjurstrom emphasized to jurors that it doesn't matter how many conventions in the country are calling themselves comic cons, "there is only one comic con, and it's right here in San Diego."
Those other conventions, she said, are all "infringers" that don't need to be considered for San Diego to prove its case, and San Diego is not required to police those other trademark violations if it doesn't want to.
For the most part, San Diego chooses to avoid lengthy and costly lawsuits, but "we are pursuing the worst offenders first," Bjurstrom explained.
Once the legal battle is over, she said, San Diego Comic-Con doesn't care if Farr and Brandenburg continue running a comic and popular arts convention in Salt Lake City.
"Just pick another name," Bjurstrom emphasized.
In his arguments, Katz also questioned the high amount of damages San Diego is seeking, claiming the organization has failed to show any quantification of how it has been damaged.1 comment on this story
San Diego Comic-Con's brand is doing exceptionally well, he argued.
Katz noted that while more than $9 million in requested damages has been requested for a three-month "corrective advertising campaign," San Diego's representatives have said they usually spend between $20,000 and $30,000 for a month of advertising. He also pointed out that the advertising cost was estimated for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and San Diego, not for Salt Lake City.
"You can't award what was never measured and never happened," Katz said.