The Exposition Experience: Starting an Anime Convention in the shadow of Anime Expo®
I have been getting questions regarding the challenges that the team at Wasabi Anime recently ran into regarding coming up with a name for our new 2011 anime convention in Florida. You see, I’ve always been VERY vocal about showing respect to the others in the fan convention community who have been doing this longer than myself and, through their work, set the groundwork for many of today’s fandom events. So when we were working on a new name for our convention, we wanted something that would effectively brand our show without infringing on other local convention names.
It would be an anime convention.
It would be in Florida.
Thus we knew we wanted Florida Anime in the title.
Florida (and nearby in Georgia) had already saturated the market with a variety of event titles, so finding one unique to our region was going to be a challenge. There are dozens of “cons”; there’s a nearby “Festival”; there’s a “Weekend” up the road; for years there was a “Show”; Thus we found ourselves limited. The only two labels that seemed untouched (that we liked) in the Florida region were “Expo” and “Experience.” We never expected the first one to stick… but it never hurts to ask. Here are the facts, in order, of what happened:
- We contacted the SPJA (Society for Promotion of Japanese Animation) in April of this year via email asking permission to use the name “The Florida Anime Expo”
- After not hearing back (and after getting a couple of bounced emails) we tried to resend the email again via alternate email addresses… in case our first one was getting blocked as “spam” from an unusual domain (greenmustard.com)
- After still not hearing back, we contacted Brian Raker from the SPJA asking for help getting our request sent. We found his email address via the ACML (the anime convention managers) mailing list. Brian stated he passed the information along to the SPJA/Anime Expo marketing department.
- A month later (the end of May) we still had not heard anything back. We emailed Brain requesting follow up… and didn’t hear back from him again, either.
- After the summer, we began production work on the new convention. Since we had not heard back via email, we sent a letter via Fedex (with signature confirmation) to the SPJA stating that if we didn’t hear back from them, we were going to assume that they were giving their consent on the name.
- A few days later, I receive an email from Robert Retana, a named partner at Oliver, Sabec & Retana P.C. The attachment in the email was a Cease & Desist stating that Green Mustard Entertainment, Inc. could not use the name “The Florida Anime Expo.”
- I replied back the next day stating we would not use the name and would instead use the name “The Florida Anime Experience.”
- Soon after, I received (via email) ANOTHER Cease & Desist stating that Green Mustard Entertainment, Inc. could not use the name “The Florida Anime Experience” because is was “confusingly similar” to the names and trademarks held by the SPJA.
- I found this somewhat confusing since the Erie Anime Experience has been running successfully since 2007 without (to my knowledge) any protest from the SPJA. I emailed the ACML asking if my perception was off and if anyone else felt that the two names would be in conflict.
- It is interesting to note that one of the replies to my email to the ACML was from Jacqueline Miller, the con chair at Erie Anime Experience. She stated she saw no conflict the “The Florida Anime Experience” and “Erie Anime Experience” both existing. She also stated that when the Erie Anime Experience changed their name in 2007 (from ErieCon), they also tried the name “Erie Anime Expo.” The SPJA contacted them and asked them not to use “Expo” – so they instead used “Experience” and have done so for the past three years.
- Immediately after sending the initial email to the ACML, I emailed Marc Perez, the acting CEO of the SPJA and Chairman of the Board of Directors conveying what his representation was stating about using “The Florida Anime Experience.” In the email, I included my cell phone number.
- That night, I got a call from Marc. He came off as a really nice guy and we discussed anime conventions and fandom for a bit. At the end of the call, Marc said he felt that there wasn’t really a conflict with the names “Anime Expo” and “The Florida Anime Experience”. Since it was Friday night, he planned to talk to the SPJA board over the weekend and he’d try to get an answer back to me in a couple of days. His expectation was that it would be okay, but I would have to sign something from the SPJA’s attorney agreeing to a couple of terms when using the name.
- As of end of business on Monday, I had not heard anything back from Marc – so I contacted him again seeking some follow up.
- On Tuesday morning, I got an email from Marc stating that we could go ahead and use “The Florida Anime Experience” as the event’s name. He would have his attorney send a document for me to sign with three stipulations. I emailed him stating concern with one of the stipulations and the fact that I was under a time constraint to reply to his attorney by the end of the day (per the earlier Cease & Desist).
- I got a voice mail (I missed the call) soon after from Marc. In it he pointed out that I shouldn’t worry about the time constraint with replying to the attorney since he had copied the attorney on the email that he (Marc) had sent me. I went back to look at my inbox and, sure enough, Mr. Retana was cc’d. Marc also stated (in the message) that he would call me later that day to talk about it more.
- The phone call never came… instead, I received an email from the attorney stating that I should not have contacted Marc directly and that he was reviewing the emails he and I had exchanged. The email from Mr. Retana also stated I had another 48 hours to reply to the Cease & Desist.
- A couple of days later, I received the third Cease & Desist. This one made it abundantly clear that Mr. Retana and the SPJA still felt that “The Florida Anime Experience” was “confusingly similar” to “Anime Expo”. Thus, we were suddenly NOT allowed to use it again.
- I replied back stating that we did not agree with the alleged “confusing similarity” in names, but we would comply in good faith and not use “The Florida Anime Experience.” We also stated in the letter that we would be watching events with similar names to ours that we proposed with interest. The intent of doing this was to see how consistent the firm would be in the application of its enforcement.
- Thus the event was dubbed “Florida Anime” – not our favorite choice for a name, but a viable one just the same.
- A week later, an email showed up in my inbox via the ACML from Jacqueline Miller from the Erie Anime Experience. Immediately, I thought of the something I conveyed to Marc in one of our emails…
The PR issue you’re dealing with is the fact that Anime Expo has stepped into a slippery slope. If I/Green Mustard Entertainment, Inc. have to sign a document stating we can use a name with your consent based on stipulations, are you going to do this to ALL the other similarly named events?
- It seemed that the SJPA’s law firm had touched their skis to the slope, and things were sliding fast. A number of anime convention chairs, managers and owners were now being very vocal about the situation – some to the point of belligerence. A story about it even showed up on The Convention Fans blog.
- With the pressure building, cooler heads began to prevail. A couple of days later, another email from Jacqueline showed up stating that she had spoken to Marc and the SPJA’s attorney’s stating they could continue to use their name: Erie Anime Experience.
- I can only assume that Marc had spoken to the SPJA’s law firm and conveyed that the good of aggressively projecting AX’s name was being outweighed by the negative effects on the the SPJA/AX’s relationships with the other fan conventions and the anime fan community as a whole.
The final result? I got an email late Friday night from Brooke Oliver, the senior named parter at Oliver, Sabec & Retana P.C. In the letter, the firm conceded that they “may have been overly restrictive with respect to use of the term EXPERIENCE.” Thus, our event will be known as (again) The Florida Anime Experience.
Are the lawyers “evil” for sending all of the C&D letters? I don’t think so. I tend to be a “glass if half full” kind of guy. Their actions, though, reminded me a quote from Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. I’ve paraphrased it a bit to apply to this circumstance:
[A Lawyer, when representing us,] is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we eventually get sicker.
In closing: I’d like it known that there is NO ILL WILL towards the firm, the SJPA, Anime Expo and Marc Perez. My friend Joey Snackpants regularly reminds me that everyone can make a mistake… but it’s the intent behind the mistake that defines the people making them. I feel safe in saying that Marc and the AX staff didn’t intend make things more difficult for other anime conventions and the folks who run them; and their actions in the end have (in my eyes) proven that they really want to help “promote Japanese animation.”