On Friday morning, representatives from Anime Boston and Boston AnimeFest will face off in federal court to declare once and for all that they have nothing to do with each other.
It’s an ani-mess.
The organization behind the annual anime meetup Anime Boston filed a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the two companies behind younger Boston-area convention Boston AnimeFest, alleging that Boston AnimeFest is infringing on its trademarked name and squatting on the website BostonAnimeFest.com in an effort to trick anime fans into attending the wrong convention. Boston AnimeFest says “Boston” and “anime” are generic words, not subject to trademark, and they’ll counter-sue if Anime Boston causes them to lose any money.
This used to be a one-anime-convention town.
“We decided on the ‘Anime Boston’ name in December 2001,” Patrick Delahanty, one of the convention’s co-founders, told The Daily Beast. He remembers designing the logo while visiting his parents for Christmas that year.
Since then, Anime Boston has grown into a small empire, becoming the eighth-most attended anime convention in North America, with nearly 27,000 attendees in 2016, according to AnimeCons.com. But some attendees get the name wrong.
“Ever since we started, my father mistakenly called it ‘Boston Anime,’” Delahanty said. “So it wasn’t long before I registered bostonanime.com to point to animeboston.com in case others also made the same mistake. As the convention quickly grew, I would occasionally hear others mention ‘Boston Anime’ in reference to Anime Boston. My father still asks me, ‘Are you going to Boston Anime?’”
Then along came Boston AnimeFest.
Technically, Boston AnimeFest is not a new convention. It’s a new branch of the NorthEast Comic Con, which has been running since 2014, and is scheduled to take place on Dec. 9 in Hanover, Massachusetts, an hour outside Boston.
This August, “we came up with the concept of creating an aspect of our show called AnimeFest,” Gary Sohmers, one of Boston AnimeFest’s organizers, told The Daily Beast. “It was just a logical marketing thing. We had no idea someone would think they could copyright or trademark the two generic words ‘Boston’ or ‘Anime’ and stop us.”
Sohmers says one of his colleagues, who had previously volunteered at Anime Boston, even gave the older convention a heads-up.
“She notified them in August that she’s going to be doing an anime fest called the Boston AnimeFest. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t contact her and ask, ‘Hey, do you think that’s cool?’” Sohmers said. “Not even ‘Hey, can you change your name, leave Boston off?’”
On Sept. 26, the group registered the website BostonAnimeFest.com.
On Nov. 6, Anime Boston sent Boston AnimeFest a cease and desist letter demanding that the group “stop using the name ‘Boston Anime’ and/or ‘Boston Anime Fest’ in connection with their event.”
Chris O’Connell, president of Anime Boston’s parent organization, New England Anime Society, said Boston AnimeFest’s name was misleading. “We do not want consumers and anime enthusiasts to be mistaken by another group’s use of a confusingly similar mark,” O’Connell told The Daily Beast. “That is what this case is about.”
Anime Boston said its name was protected under trademark. Sohmers said that was nonsense. In a Nov. 27 response letter, he threatened to seek damages in court if Anime Boston ended up costing Boston AnimeFest any money. He accused Anime Boston of trying “to limit competition and consumers’ choices in an attempt to monopolize all ‘Anime’ oriented events in the ‘Boston’ marketplace.”
O’Connell takes issue with the claim.
“I think Mr. Sohmers' allegations that NEAS is attempting to monopolize the market is a gross mischaracterization,” he said. “We have been supportive of other conventions in the New England area for years.”
Specifically, Anime Boston has given free advertising space to Nauticon, a 21+ boat-themed nerd culture convention, which is run by one of the companies producing Boston AnimeFest, O’Connell said.
On Nov. 28, the day after Sohmers replied to the cease-and-desist, Anime Boston sued Boston AnimeFest in federal court for copyright infringement. Boston AnimeFest’s parent companies are due in court Friday. The Boston AnimeFest convention takes place next weekend.
Sohmers claims the lawsuit’s timing is a deliberate ploy to put pressure on Boston AnimeFest the week before its inaugural run.
“I got served the papers literally six minutes before you called,” Sohmers said on Thursday. “I only knew about the filing because ambulance-chasers contacted me—three lawyers telling me, ‘You need representation.’ For what? ‘Don’t you know you’re being sued in court in Friday?’… I just got served at 4 o’clock, and my trial’s at 10 o’clock tomorrow. How would I even have time to get counsel?”
The lawsuit accuses Boston AnimeFest of piggybacking off Anime Boston’s good name.
“NEAS spends substantial sums annually in marketing and advertising its services under the Anime Boston trademark on an international and national level,” the suit says.
NEAS is a registered nonprofit, and its publicly available tax returns show it spent more than $1 million on its convention, much of which went toward promotional spending. Those nonprofit filings describe the organization’s mission as to “further public education and understanding of Japanese society and culture through visual and written media.”
If that’s the case, Sohmers argued, why is it suing his anime convention? “I would hope that if their nonprofit status is to promote anime in the Boston marketplace, why would they want to restrict anyone from doing that?” he said. “It seems a little silly. Or greedy.”
If a judge makes rules Boston AnimeFest’s name to be too similar to Anime Boston’s, Sohmers might be amenable to changing the name, he said. “At the same time, I have the full right to go to the attorney general’s office and file an antitrust action against the New England Anime Society, which may potentially endanger their 501(c)(3) status.”
Anime Boston says it wishes Boston AnimeFest all the best—as long as it changes the convention’s name.
“All we have asked is for Fantastic Gatherings and IMAGE to change their event’s name to something not so similar to our own mark,” O’Connell said. “After denying our request twice, they have left us with no choice but go to to court to defend our mark and brand.”
Representatives for both conventions are due in court Friday morning.