If the Golden Age of comic books was 1938-1945 or so, then some might argue that the Golden Age of superheroes is right now. After all, characters like Batman, Spider-Man and the Avengers rake in the dough at the box office and have name recognition with children and adults around the world.

But, if you have aspirations to create a comic book or movie character with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, you better think twice before you dub them a “super hero.” Since 1979, the two largest comic book companies in the United States, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, have held a joint trademark over the term “super hero.”

The term came into vogue after the debut of Superman in 1938’s Action Comics #1, published by the forerunner of DC Comics. The character, who had a host of spectacular powers (like jumping an eighth of a mile and lifting cars over his head) spawned a rash of imitation characters, from Captain Marvel to the Human Torch. And companies began to refer to these fantastical masked men and women as “super heroes.”

But, to protect their intellectual property, DC sought a trademark on the term, alongside Marvel Comics. As the home of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America Marvel has also ridden a wave of super-powered heroes, and recently taken the lead in the two-horse race of American comic books. 

The companies renewed the trademark in 2006, much to the chagrin of many critics who felt that the trademark – which covers a wide variety of products, from comics to playing cards, from costumes to pencil sharpeners and more – was too restrictive.

Independent creators not affiliated with Marvel and DC are forbidden from using the term superhero in their products, as several U.K. residents have recently learned. In March, DC and Marvel filed motion to block U.K. diet supplement company Bio-Synergy from using the slogan “Fuel the super-hero inside,” and in April, they opposed a British author’s attempt to trademark the title of his advice book “Business Zero to Superhero.” 

The comic companies have likewise flexed their gamma-powered muscles to protect their trademark in the US as well, including blocking a small press’s attempt to publish a series called “Super Hero Happy Hour,” and another creator who wanted to publish a title called “A World Without Superheroes.”

If Marvel and DC continue their success in other media, then it’s unlikely we’ll see that superheroless world anytime soon. But, if they continue to keep a Kryptonian grip on the term itself, then they are apt to quash an entire generation of writers and creators who just want to use a term that many would feel has become as much a part of the lexicon as calling someone Sherlock or Einstein.


For more on trademarks and copyrights, check out the following:

Google tries to trademark the word ‘Glass’

‘Game of Thrones’ achieves new record for piracy levels

Animator claims Disney’s Frozen infringes upon her short film

Who owns The Doctor?