A Wichita Dot-and-Line Man Looks to Protect His Turf

You don't need superpowers to safeguard your online comic book, but a good lawyer and a working knowledge of copyright procedure might help

Q: I'm thinking of publishing a comic book exclusively on the Internet in order to minimize the need for outside investors and related startup expenses. However, I'm concerned with how difficult effective copyright protection will be on the Web. What steps should I follow and what expenses will I incur?

---- R.T., Wichita, Kan.

A: Intellectual-property protections are basically the same for the Internet as they are for print publication, experts say. And while the practice of copying without permission does proliferate online, it flourishes in the ink-and-paper world as well -- wherever people have access to copiers and scanners. In fact, Web technology may enable you to track down online copyright infringers more effectively than you would ever be able to do offline.

So the problems the Internet offers with respect to enforcement of a copyright are probably outweighed by the access you have to reach a large audience cheaply, says David Farah, an intellectual-property attorney with Sheldon & Mak in Pasadena, Calif. "Should your material become commercially valuable, you will probably make money on your creation from the non-Internet uses anyway, and the copyright in those uses will be easier to enforce," Farah says.

You will want to start by registering your copyright to the comic book with the U.S. Copyright Office (lcweb.loc.gov/copyright) and then recording it with the U.S. Customs Service (www.customs.ustreas.gov). The comic book's title and characters should be cleared for use to ensure that your creative output is not infringing on anyone else's trademark rights, says Rod S. Berman, chairman of the intellectual-property department at Los Angeles law firm Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro.

"Trademark applications should be filed to register the trademarks in the U.S. [www.uspto.gov] and in as many countries as you can afford, and the trademark registrations should be recorded with U.S. Customs," Berman says. You should also protect the domain names that correspond to your comic book's title and characters, Berman says, by registering them in the .com, .net, and .org varieties, and -- to the extent that your budget allows -- in foreign countries.

When you do file for copyright protection, make sure you register your copyrights. This costs $30 per application, but you can do a collective registration to save money. According to attorneys, when a copyright is registered in a timely fashion (preferably before you publish any of the work, or no later than 90 days after its first appearance on the Internet), you have the opportunity to get statutory damages and have your attorneys' fees paid by the infringer. These two remedies, which are not available to nonregistered copyrights, often make the difference between settling a case out of court and having to sue, says attorney Ivan Hoffman, who has a helpful article, "Do I Need to Register My Copyrights?" posted on his Web site (www.ivanhoffman.com/reg.html).

MEASURED AGGRESSION.

  Each screen on your Web site should bear the standard copyright notice, consisting of the word "copyright" or "(c)" followed by the year of publication and your name, and the text "All rights reserved," Farah says. As far as enforcing your copyright, you can set up your Web site so that visitors cannot read the comic book unless they electronically accept an online agreement that says they won't copy your work without permission.

You can also structure the artwork electronically so that it's difficult to download and is traceable through a digital "watermark." Berman recommends that you hire a trademark-watch service that can detect potential infringements as they are used and applied for in the trademark offices of various countries.

The cost for protecting your work depends on how aggressive you want or can afford to get. You can reduce the expense by filing the applications yourself online, but you should consult with an attorney specializing in intellectual property at least to have the online agreement prepared, run a trademark search, file the initial trademark applications, and prepare the copyright application for your first issue, Berman says. The minimum fee for those steps would probably be $3,000 to $5,000. If you want to protect many characters and cover numerous foreign countries, the upper end of the legal fees and costs could run in the $50,000 to $100,000 range.

For background information on copyright law and links to the act itself and recent court decisions, check out www.law.cornell.edu/copyright/context.html. Farah recommends that you also review the copyright office circulars that apply to cartoons and comic strips at www.loc.gov/copyright/circs. Circular 44 covers cartoons and comic strips, Circular 62 covers copyright registration for serials, Circular 66 covers copyright registration of online works, and Circular 55 talks about copyright registration for multimedia works.