Steve Bissette went through the whole process of copyrighting and trademarking Tyrant. Any good copyright attorney can accomplish this for you. You pay them a few hundred dollars and they do a 'title search' (or somesuch) which tells them whether anyone has any previous claim to the name that you're trying to copyright and trademark. We sent Steve, at his request, a copy of the Cerebus issue that had the jam drawing of Cerebus and Tyrant, which he included with the ashcan of #1, fulfilling the requirements of 'intent to publish' and, in a matter of a few weeks, he had the paperwork that gave him clear title to Tyrant. Marvel released an individual book of some kind called 'Tyrant' shortly thereafter. Steve made a phone call to his attorney, found out that they hadn't even attempted to file a claim, so Steve was safe. (Wisely) he has no intention of taking legal action against them, but he is covered.
My personal view, relative to self-publishing, is that the only way to protect ownership of your character is to keep doing your character on a regular basis, establish your character, and thus render meaningless any attempt by anyone to take it away. I remember telling this to some smart-ass at a con last year: anyone is welcome to do Cerebus without fear of legal reprisal. As a comic-book character, that is. If they think they can do a better job of it than I can, I'll be happy to see the results. Well, this asshole immediately starts making plans to do a Cerebus and Jaka pornographic 'wedding night' comic book and runs around the con telling everyone. Does that bother me? No. All he accomplished was to make himself look both parasitical and ridiculous. If the comic book ever comes out, his name and the name of the 'project' will become synonymous with pointless and (having seen samples of his work) talentless vulgarity. When Alf first came out, I had a number of people advocating that I take some sort of legal action. There were similarities, but the two things are so widely different that any suit I would bring would be of the nuisance variety - a parasite looking for a payoff. In a karmic sense, someone who has a character that looks like Groucho Marx and who makes free use of any 'Roach Fodder' he finds lying about would only be asking for trouble. Glass houses and all that.
Don't sign any contracts and be productive and all legal vulnerabilities become a moot point. That's my personal bottom line.
On the subject of starting a business, if you're just launching your book you're far better off treating it as a 'hobby for profit'. The tax office has forms to cover 'self-employed earnings', which anyone who is self-publishing (even mini-comics guys) should have. It's usually just one page (unlikely but true) with a line for all of the different expenses incurred by your 'business'. If you've paid a two-thousand-dollar printing bill, two hundred dollars in postage, forty bucks for stationery, if twenty per cent of your living space is taken up with your drawing board, reference materials, etc., guess what, gang? You can write it off on your taxes. If all you've 'made' from self-publishing for the year is a few hundred dollars, your business suffered a 'loss' and the IRS and Revenue Canada and Inland Revenue give you a break because of it. You might even get a nice tax refund out of it.
Each jurisdiction (state, county, municipality) has different rules about how you become a business. When you pick up the tax form, ask about it. Explain that you're working at home, that you're suffering a loss or making a negligible profit, and they'll be able to tell you what office (if any) to contact about registering and/or getting a license. Or they might tell you that you don't have to do anything until you make 'x' number of dollars a year. Zoning requirements (i.e., not conducting business in a residential area) usually only apply to 'walk-in' trade, so don't let that stop you from going in and finding out what the local rules are. They aren't going to tell you you can't write and draw in your own home (unless your name is Michael Diana and you're living in the People's Republic of Florida).
Thanks, Mr. Penney. Needed to be said.
Copyright 1994 Dave Sim
US Copyright Office
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Well, I can't find it, but this fellow later wrote the Cerebus letters column, explaining that 1) his main intent had been to show that Sim had the courage of his convictions about copyrights, which some had doubted, and 2) the mini-comic, which in the end was never produced, was not pornographic. It was intended as nothing more than a humorious fanfic tribute to Cerebus. Judging from Sim's response, all was forgiven.
If anyone knows which issue of Cerebus the letter this fellow wrote was printed in, please email me. Thanks.
Footnote From the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's "1995 Update:"
Michael Diana was charged with three counts of obscenity for publishing BOILED ANGEL, a self-distributed fanzine with a print-run of fewer than 300 copies. On March 25,1994 Diana was found GUILTY on three counts of obscenity for publishing, distracting, and advertising BOILED ANGEL #7 and #ATE. He was ordered to spend the weekend in jail pending sentencing. Diana received three years probation. The terms of his probation require him to pay a $3,000 fine, undergo psychological evaluation within 30 days, maintain full-time employment, perform eight hours of community service every week, have no contact with children under 18 years of age, take a course in Journalism Ethics (at his expense) and not draw any "obscene" material while on probation, even for personal use. The last dictum will be monitored by unannounced inspections of his living premises. An appeal is planned. Legal fees to date exceed $40,000.