Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Corollary: Comics Crackdown II
From the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund:

After a year of legal maneuvers, Kraft has settled its trademark dilution suit against CBLDF defendant Stuart Helm. The settlement agreement forms a permanent injunction that prohibits Helm from using the name "King VelVeeda" on any future web, comics, or illustration work. Helm is allowed five years to sell all existing work using the censored name. Kraft is also donating $10,000 to the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Foundation, Kraft's recognized charity of Helm's choice. Each side will bear its own legal fees.

The CBLDF spent over $14,000 on the case. Those costs were borne with membership and convention contributions. The Freedom to Read Foundation will also contribute a portion of Kraft's settlement donation to offset the Fund's legal fees.

Kraft first contacted Helm in January of 2002, sending him a letter requesting he cease and desist the use of his nickname "King VelVeeda." Helm had been signing work using the pseudonym for more than a decade and maintained that because he was not directly competing with Kraft that he was within his rights using the name. Kraft differed, and sued him for Trademark Dilution and Infringement, and followed that suit with a request for Preliminary Injunction. In addition to suing Helm to cease use of the name, Kraft also sued for legal fees and punitive damages.

Helm represented himself for the first months of his case. Later he procured the help of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund after being deposed by Kraft's lawyers. The Fund's Board of Directors voted to take the case, believing that because the trademark laws involved in Helm's case are in flux until this term's Supreme Court decision in Mosely v. Secret Catalogs, Inc. comes down, that his First Amendment rights were in need of defense.

CBLDF retained counsel Burton Joseph, James Joseph, and Ken Levinson took over Helm's case in April. They deposed Kraft's executives and argued his case before Magistrate Arlander Keys' court in the Preliminary Injunction hearing. Keys granted Kraft's request for preliminary injuction last July. His decision required the artist to remove the nickname from all web pages, metatags, and search engines.

Helm complied with the Magistrate's decision while the Fund's lawyers filed an appeal. In September, Kraft approached the Fund's lawyers about arriving at a settlement.

"We were passing settlement proposals back and forth in October and the settlement was actually reached by the end of November," Helm reveals. "They took a hard line on everything, saying they were prepared to go back to court no matter how much it cost, but at the same time harassing Burton to settle and being really stingy with the settlement money. I asked them to give the money to the CBLDF, but they refused to do that, so eventually we agreed to give it to the Freedom to Read Foundation," Helm adds.

Helm continues, "I had a couple of reasons for settling. After losing the Preliminary Injunction trial I had lost some faith in the justice system. I didn't want to risk going all the way through the trial and losing because I didn't want to set a bad precedent. But more than that, I was physically tired of the case. I was tired of going to court, I was tired of being harassed by them, and I wanted to move on. The preliminary injunction already forced me to do a lot of work that made me want to move on. It's hard enough to stay energized and do art and then also deal with this court stuff. And also, I've been doing some activism because of the war on terror and I want to focus my political energy on those issues rather than spending that energy going to court fighting over my nickname."

In the end, Kraft successfully censored Helm, but they didn't crush him. "It could have been much worse," Helm says. "When they started, they gave me 30 days to cease and desist doing anything with the nickname. Now one year later I have five years to sell my artwork, I don't owe them any money, and a good cause is getting paid."

"I owe a lot to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund because they came in and rescued me at my lowest ebb. If they hadn't supported my case, I probably would have caved. But the Fund gave me the chance to fight when I needed it and I couldn't have done it without their support," Helm admits.

Fund Board Member Louise Nemschoff says, "This case highlights some of the ways in which trademark law poses serious traps for the unwary artist. Branding is becoming a more important part of American life and this case is another example of how First Amendment rights are at risk. In this climate, it's important for the Fund to defend the First Amendment rights of cartoonists to comment on the commercial icons of pop culture."

CBLDF Director Charles Brownstein says, "Stu needed a strong defense against Kraft's legal bullying and we were able to provide that. We responded quickly, we put up a good fight, and we helped him arrive at a settlement that enables him to go on with his life and art. In the end, this case is another example of how artists' First Amendment rights are in need of constant vigilance and protection. Trademark and Copyright laws are volatile and constantly changing; in that climate, it's important the Fund continue to fight on behalf of artists so as to protect the rights the First Amendment affords them."

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