SBJ/20080428/This Week's News

Iron Man calls this fight a draw

When Marvel Entertainment releases the movie “Iron Man” on Friday, it will introduce a little-known character to a mainstream audience that likely associates the name more with a long-distance triathlon than with a superhero.

The comic book hero and the triathlon have
found a way to co-exist with their names.
The release highlights the historically uneasy relationship between Marvel Entertainment and World Triathlon Corp., which has aggressively protected and even expanded its Ironman trademarks since Florida ophthalmologist James Gills bought the brand in 1989 for $3 million.

Iron Man the comic strip character came along first, in 1963. The story centers on Tony Stark, an inventor who creates a high-tech suit of armor to help him fight crime. Robert Downey Jr. plays the title role in the new film.

The Ironman Triathlon debuted in Hawaii in 1978 and received national exposure the following year when Sports Illustrated ran a 10-page story. Valerie Silk, who took over the event from founder John Collins in 1979, recalls hearing from Marvel lawyers soon after, when Timex introduced an officially licensed Ironman watch.

“All of the sudden Marvel decided they wanted a piece of it,” said Silk, who no longer is involved with the sport. “We ended up with an agreement that the word ‘triathlon’ had to go on the watch, which prevented them from accessing royalties. As long as Ironman and triathlon were associated together, we were fine.”

In the early years of the agreement, Silk said, the words “Ironman” and “triathlon” had to appear together, even as the company’s red “M-Dot” logo, for which Silk paid a graphic designer $75, became commonplace.

But no longer must “Ironman” and “triathlon” be grouped together. It’s unclear how the relationship evolved, though the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site offers some explanation.

Marvel Entertainment has registered “Iron Man” across a range of categories relating to “comic book characters.” WTC has registered “Ironman” for numerous marketing endeavors “in association with contests consisting of running, biking, and swimming.”

Marvel Entertainment officials wouldn’t comment for this story. WTC spokeswoman Blair LaHaye said Ironman does not license rights from any company, including Marvel, and owns the Ironman brand and registered trademarks. LaHaye said licensed Ironman products, including races, accounted for $500 million in sales in 2007, but the company does not reveal its cut.

With two companies parceling off the trademarks, there wasn’t much room for baseball’s iron man, Cal Ripken, to use the phrase in his business endeavors. When he bought the Utica (N.Y.) Blue Sox minor league team after the 2001 season and moved them to Aberdeen, Md., Ripken hoped to use “Ironmen” as the team’s nickname. Instead, he opted for “Ironbirds” following a trademark search, said Ray Schulte, co-founder of Ripken’s memorabilia company, Ironclad Authentics.

As for the movie release, there would seem to be natural tie-ins between a superhero and a distance race considered the greatest endurance feat in sports. But LaHaye said there are no plans for cross-promotion.

Pete Williams is a writer in Florida.

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