A potentially nasty legal battle is brewing in the comic industry and today one of those parties went public with details.
Aspen MLT, Inc., the independent publishing company founded by "Fathom" creator Michael Turner, announced they have filed a federal lawsuit against Top Cow Productions, Inc., Turner's former co-publisher, regarding the alledged infringement of Turner's copyright on "Fathom." Over the past couple of weeks Rich Johnston has been revealing certain details of this lawsuit in his Lying In The Gutters column here at CBR. Today, Aspen sent out the following press release detailing their complaint and vocalizing their position. We've included the full text of their release below followed by a response from Top Cow's Matt Hawkins.
MICHAEL TURNER FILES FEDERAL LAWSUIT AGAINST TOP COW PRODUCTIONS INC. TO PROTECT HIS RIGHTS
Marina Del Rey, CA. (6-9-03) On May 2nd, 2003, Michael Turner filed a federal lawsuit against Top Cow Productions Inc., Turner v. Top Cow Productions, Inc., U.S. Dist. Ct., Cent. Dist. Calif. 03-3118. The complaint seeks to recover damages arising from the infringement of Turner's trademark "FATHOM", to enjoin Top Cow's future infringement of such trademark, and to recover monies owed to Turner under his contract with Top Cow. Turner filed the lawsuit in light of the deterioration of the relationship between Turner and Top Cow and the threats of litigation being made by Top Cow. The complaint was amended at the end of May to enjoin Top Cow's intentional interference with Turner and Aspen MLT, Inc.'s prospective business advantage when Turner learned that Top Cow was threatening Aspen's printers and distributors with litigation in order to discourage them from doing business with Turner and Aspen, according to the complaint. A copy of the First Amended Complaint can be found at www.aspencomics.com.
While the lawsuit is still ongoing, the intent of this press release is to clear up some questions and inconsistencies that have been floating around many message boards and the comic book industry as of late.
Michael Turner is the sole owner of a federally registered trademark for "FATHOM": Trademark Reg. No. 2,237,836. A copy of such registration can be found at www.aspencomics.com.
In August of 1997, Turner entered into a license agreement with Top Cow for use of Turner's creator-owned work, Fathom. Such agreement provided that Turner owned Fathom and granted Top Cow an exclusive license to produce and distribute Fathom-related works during the term of the agreement. The agreement expired no later than August of 2002, after which time Top Cow was not authorized to distribute further Fathom products.
When Turner left Top Cow at the end of 2002, he did so on good terms and began preparations to form his new company. Such preparations included meeting with Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. regarding the distribution of books created by Aspen, forming the corporation and beginning the creative process on the new Fathom books, plus Soulfire and Ekos. The first solicitation for such books premiered in the Diamond Previews Catalog Vol. XIII #4, which went on sale Wednesday, March 26th, 2003.
On Friday March 28th, 2003, Turner received a letter from Top Cow's counsel alleging Top Cow's ownership of Fathom, Ekos, Soulfire and Turner's next creative work. Demand was made that Turner immediately stop the production of all Fathom, Ekos and Soulfire related titles.
Throughout the next few weeks, Turner and Top Cow exchanged letters regarding these issues that culminated in Turner filing the federal lawsuit on May 2nd, 2003 to protect his rights.
Turner continued to prepare to distribute his books and only learned on Wednesday, May 28th, 2003 that the books (beginning with Michael Turner Presents: Aspen #1) would not be distributed by Diamond.
Turner has created and Aspen has provided copies of Michael Turner Presents: Aspen #1 to printers and Diamond. The books are 100% completed and ready to ship; this is not a case of an artist failing to draw the books.
Aspen tried to work with Diamond to distribute the books, including providing written assurances regarding ownership and proposing a compromise whereby Diamond would distribute the books but hold the profits in an escrow account until the "ownership issues" were resolved. Top Cow was unreceptive to such a compromise and Diamond was therefore, unwilling to take the risk of distributing the books.
Turner and Aspen greatly appreciate all the support that they have received from everyone, especially the fans. Aspen's number one goal continues to be creating the highest quality and most entertaining comic books available and getting them out quickly to the fans and retailers.
Turner and Aspen are committed to resolving these issues raised by the lawsuit in as timely a fashion as possible, while still preserving Turner's and Aspen's legally protected rights.
On June 2nd, Top Cow's Matt Hawkins posted the following on the Top Cow Message Boards:
Michael Turner left Top Cow in December 2002. On May 2, 2003, Michael Turner filed a federal lawsuit against Top Cow. On May 29, 2003, Turner filed a First Amended Complaint. Top Cow has not responded to the lawsuit but is currently working on a response. Turner sued Top Cow for selling Top Cow's inventory of Fathom merchandise that were created and manufactured while Turner was at Top Cow. Typically, distributors take a "hands-off" approach and will not distribute any merchandise until the parties or the court resolves the dispute. In this case, the distributor will not distribute any Fathom/Aspen merchandise for Turner (Aspen, MLT) or Top Cow until the dispute is resolved.