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Comic artists advised to fight to protect work

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On the eve of Comic-Con, a group of artists and lawyers gathered at the San Diego Law Library to talk about the future of print comics, how to protect the creations and technology's effect on the industry.

Greg Goldstein, president and chief operating officer of IDW Publishing, said his company still generates 85 percent of its revenue from the printed product.

"In our world, comic books have always had a collectible component to them," he said Tuesday at the fifth annual Lindley Lecture on Law & Comics. "There's definitely a viability of print on the collectible side."

Goldstein actually said the digital revolution has actually aided the printed product. Technology has allowed the publisher to print bigger graphic novels with better, more detailed illustrations.

"So now, we're really taking collectible comic books and they're really becoming giant art books," Goldstein said. "They don’t have the same impact digitally as they do physically. There's still a tactile element to leafing through a beautiful art book."

One area that could see a dramatic decrease in printed copies is children's books, said Stu Rees, an entertainment lawyer who also draws his own law-focused comic strip.

Rees, the father of two pre-teens, said children growing up today are more comfortable with technology and prefer to consume their media electronically. The main barrier now is price because parents are uneasy about letting their children handle expensive tablets, but once the price decreases, Rees predicted a dramatic shift to e-books will take place within five years.

For artists, the easiest, cheapest, and perhaps best way to protect their work is through a copyright registration, Rees said. A copyright protects the artistic expression elements of a work.

"The advantage to registering [a copyright] is you're able to get attorney's fees if you're successful in a lawsuit," Rees said. "You can get statutory damages in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you have an unregistered copyright, you're limited to no attorney's fees and a reasonable royalty."

Having a registered copyright also increases the effectiveness of a cease-and-desist letter sent to someone using the work without authorization.

Trademarks protect an actual name or image of a product but can be expensive.

When a work isn't copyrighted, over time the creator can lose his or her control — and compensation — over the product. One example is the "Me Worry?" boy more famously known as Alfred E. Newman – the mascot of Mad magazine.

The character was created in 1914, but the original artist and his wife never pursued infringement claims, despite the image’s repeated use in advertising and other areas.

Finally, in 1964, the artists' heirs sued Mad. The magazine won the lawsuit because the character had not been protected through copyright or other means.

"If you create something, you've got to fight for it and you've got to protect it," said San Diego attorney George Brewster, who used to draw a comic strip for The Daily Transcript in the 1990s. "The main thing is not to give up on your product and not lose control of your product."

"It all comes down to a business decision," Rees said. "How much do you want to spend and how much time do you want to invest?"

Technology has affected the industry by making an endless amount of content available immediately.

"I think that when we talk about the overwhelming amount of material out there, I don't know how an individual breaks through the marketplace on a general interest product in the current world," Rees said.

Rees cut through the clutter by catering to a specific audience — lawyers — in a way no one else had: through a cartoon strip. He has illustrated some 2,000 law cases for the publisher Thomson-West.

But technology can also create opportunities.

"The great equalizer about technology and the Internet is the ability for artists to showcase their art and not have to come to Comic-Con and not to have to physically knock on every door of every ad agency of every syndicate that buys art," Goldstein said.

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