On Trademarks, etc.

Since we announced our new policy on trademarks in sketchbooks and art prints, etc. (actually a return to our original policy but I’ll get to that in a moment) a few days back there’s been a fair amount of buzz — some of it bordering on hysteria — regarding the decision. So let me clarify a few things …

First, we’re talking about a tiny portion of our business. The overwhelming majority of that which we print is original, creator-owned content. Second, yes, it was the Gary Friedrich vs. Marvel decision that sparked the thinking that eventually led to this decision. But the decision is about a lot more than the fear that Disney or Time Warner will suddenly decide to stop honoring the unwritten agreement that’s been in place for decades in the comic book world and come after us. Of course that’s a huge concern after the resolution of the Friedrich case. Another word for “one-off decision” or “unique situation” is precedent. The real reason behind this decision however is the realization on my part that the occasional printing of a sketchbook or art print that contained a corporate-owned character — unwritten agreement notwithstanding — was a direct violation of Ka-Blam’s mission.

For the first year or so of operation we steadfastly turned down every job — regardless of size — that contained any unlicensed use of a corporate trademark. Then at some point we allowed ourselves to be talked into doing it on a sketchbook produced by a high profile, working freelance. We had some trepidation at the time, but convinced ourselves that because we were doing it for someone who was regularly and routinely working on the depicted characters for the trademark owners that we’d be covered by the old “unwritten agreement”. But we soon realized that once we’d crossed that rubicon — once we’d made an exception to policy — then it would become harder and harder to turn down future jobs containing trademarked characters. Again, we fell back on the old “unwritten agreement” … as long as the material was limited and presently positively we rationalized that it was OK.

But it’s not OK. It’s a violation of the trademark and — more importantly to us — it’s a violation of our raison d’ĂȘtre.

We started Ka-Blam to serve the independent comics publisher. The independent press was once the most vital, most energetic, most innovative part of the comics publishing scene. By the early 2000s however years of bone-headed policies, particularly on the distribution side of the comics business, had marginalized the indy press. Most of the indy press was pushed out of the direct market altogether. In 2005 we formed Ka-Blam. Our plan — our hope — was to reinvigorate the independent press by providing them not only with a low cost printing solution, but to use emerging technology to create a new market for their stories. We’re not there yet. But after six years, eleven thousand customers, and a hundred thousand plus orders we’re on the way.

This new policy is actually a return to our original policy, a re-commitment to our mission of serving the needs of independent publishers producing original content. Let me be clear — Ka-Blam is not — and never was — a printing company. Ka-Blam is a comics company. Digital printing is the bulk of what we do, but it’s a means to an end. Comics are our mission. Comics are our purpose.

Everyone who’s ever walked the artist alley of a comics convention has seen no shortage of prints of Spiderman legs and arms akimbo web-slinging his way through New York or of Batman brooding on a Gotham rooftop. And while those pinups might look cool — I mean, who doesn’t love Spiderman or Batman, right? — they’re not as cool as a new comic created by someone with passion and commitment to telling their own new original stories. So if you’re the guy who only wants to draw those cool pictures of Spiderman and Batman, then there’s no shortage of places to get your prints. But if you’re that creator with passion and commitment to your own comics and your own stories, then Ka-Blam is the place for you.

Barry Gregory
Ka-Blam