By Timothy Geigner
Regular readers here will certainly know that movie-sequel maker and occasional comic book producer Marvel is quite notorious for protecting its intellectual property in a rather heavy-handed way. Some of the examples of its protectionist actions are, ironically, cartoonish. Such as when it used copyright to crush the creator of Ghost Rider. Or refusing to allow copyrights for some of Marvel’s most famous characters to revert back to the folks who actually created them through termination rights. Add to this that Marvel is now a part of Disney, a company nearly as famous for its forays into shaping copyright law as it is for anything else. With all of the above, perhaps it was understandable when people saw a whole bunch of cops in the news for all the wrong reasons adorned in face masks imprinted with the logo for The Punisher that those same people wondered aloud why Marvel wasn’t suing the police over it.
You tend to see it in articles like this, where members of the public and/or other comic creators beg Disney or Marvel to sue police who wear the logo while they’re out proving the point of the protesters.
The Punisher is one of the most brutal, violent characters in comics. Yet, somehow, his iconic skull logo has been co-opted by some police officers who use the symbol to show their support for “Blue Lives Matter.” Now, certain comic creators are urging Disney to take legal action against police forces who have used the logo without permission.
So, first thing first: the fact that officers of the law are taking on the logo of a vigilante that operates brutally and specifically outside the law should tell you everything you need to know about the officers who wear those masks. These imbeciles seem to take great pleasure in proving the point of the current movement for whatever reason.
But as to any legal action Marvel could take against them, as this post points out, there’s likely very little that can be done specifically with the police.
However, while many fans would love for Marvel to tell the cops that they cannot use the trademarked skull logo of the Punisher, Marvel is likely stuck without a whole lot of legal recourse for achieving a ban like that.
The key problem with enforcing the use of the trademark with police officers, though, is found in the word trademark itself. A trademark, simply put, is a mark that is used in trade. This means that the intellectual property is being used in commerce. If the intellectual property is not being used in commerce, there is not a whole lot that the owners of the trademark can do about people using the trademark.
And, aside from the happy pilfering of society via civil asset forfeiture, not to mention police unions that aggrandize the danger of the average cop in order to continue siphoning tax money to buy better weaponry toys, policing is just a racist enterprise, not a commercial one. Legal action against the police would be tossed out of court quickly.
Which tends to move the public onto different targets out of a desperate sense that someone somewhere needs to do something. That’s when they begin to scream, “Why is Marvel refusing to enforce its trademark on the logo among those selling those masks?”
As protests against police brutality go global and enter their third week, Marvel Comics has faced increasing calls to get the Punisher skull off of police gear. The skull is often added to bootleg tactical merchandise used by police and the military (both at home and abroad), as well as, occasionally, official police gear. When pressed on the matter, though, a Marvel spokesperson told io9 precisely nothing. The spokesperson affirmed to io9 that they were taking the issue very seriously, referred readers to a page from a recent issue of the Punisher’s comic, and pointed to the company’s prior statement on social media.
Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is notoriously litigious enforcing its trademarks. Before purchasing Marvel Entertainment and all its comic characters, the company once sued three Florida daycare centers for painting likenesses of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters on their walls. And Disney refused to grant permission for a child’s Spider-Man gravestone, telling his grieving father that they wanted to protect the “innocence” and “magic” of its characters. There are more than 1,000 results for “thin blue Punisher” gear on Amazon.
So, a couple of things. First, the use of the Punisher logo is so widely prevalent that this likely explains how police are finding them and wearing them. Certainly, it’s not as though Marvel or Disney, rich enterprises though they may be, could pay enough lawyers to fill up enough courtrooms to go after all of these people all of the time. Second, Marvel most certainly does police the Punisher trademark. It’s done so on companies that have used similar logos on gun products, all kinds of merch and apparel, and elsewhere.
As for the masks the police are using like some kind of dumb superhero symbol that couldn’t be more tone-deaf, Marvel actually has made its stance pretty clear.
“We stand against racism. We stand for inclusion. We stand with our fellow Black employees, storytellers, creators and the entire Black community. We must unite and speak out.”
The spokesperson also referenced the Punisher’s own stance against police using their logo to io9 as their own stance. In Punisher #13 by Matthew Rosenberg, Szymon Kudranski, and Greg Smallwood, the Punisher isn’t pleased to see cops using his logo. The Walt Disney Corporation earlier this week pledged $5 million towards nonprofit organizations that advanced social justice, including $2 million going to the NAACP.
Bottom line: there is no world in which Marvel wants to see its character symbols resting on the faces of cops brutalizing peaceful protests. Stop asking them to sue the police; they can’t. And if you’re upset that they haven’t sued rogue apparel makers using the logo as of yet… give it time. It is Disney/Marvel, after all.