Logo use leaves bikers less than beatific

January 04, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For 47 years, the Hells Angels have roared down the road as the biggest, baddest outlaw motorcycle gang.

But the Oakland, Calif.-based club has a quieter, law-abiding alter ego: The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corporation, an "organization of motorcycle enthusiasts" and the protective owner of U.S. registered trademarks for the name "Hells Angels" and its signature "death-head" logo.

Legendary for brutally punishing impostors who dare don Hells Angels "colors" -- black leather jackets emblazoned with the club's name and logo -- the outlaw club is now defending its honor with an unlikely weapon: the law.

The Hells Angels recently sued Marvel Comics, accusing it of "getting a free ride" on the bikers' "powerfully evocative" image with a comic book titled "Hell's Angel" about a bionic super-heroine. The Hells Angels accuse Marvel of unfair competition and damaging the club's "goodwill" by deceiving the public into thinking the bikers endorse the comic book, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

"Through publicity, fact and fiction, the name Hell's Angels has acquired very widespread public recognition . . . and evokes strong and immediate reactions whenever it is uttered," the lawsuit stated, adding that the comic book "Hell's Angel" has spawned "public confusion."

The comic publisher countered in court papers: "Marvel's fantasy heroine with super powers doing battle with Satan to save souls could not logically be confused with a violent motorcycle gang that has been recognized as one of the largest illegal drug manufacturers in the world."

After the club complained, Marvel changed the comic's title to "Dark Angel," but continued to call the main character "Hell's Angel," according to club attorney Fritz-Howard Clapp. The club wants a judge to order all copies destroyed, noting that the lawsuit has made the $1.75 comic book a collector's item valued at more than $10.

What really burns the Hells Angels: someone making money off their hard-earned reputation.

Biker chic has turned leather jackets, Harley-Davidson hogs and other rebel icons into gold. And the Hells Angels realize they could cash in on their bad-boy image.

Mr. Clapp said the club has gotten offers to license its name and logo for everything from biker action figures to a line of high-fashion clothing or blue jeans. In the past, the club has also marketed the name and logo for posters, stickers, films and recordings. It also makes Hells Angels jewelry, but only for members, the attorney said.

Sonny Barger, founder and "the chief" of the Hells Angels' Oakland chapter, hasn't revealed just how far the club will go in commercializing its image. Mr. Clapp said the licensing issue had been up in the air while Barger served 3 1/2 years in prison for conspiracy to transport explosives, and his recent release could spur a resolution.

"I'm glad that people like us, and like us enough that they would want to buy our logo," Barger was quoted as saying at a party celebrating his release. "But we went to jail for it. And we died for it. And they don't have a right to it."

But Barger didn't rule out selling the right. He primarily seems concerned about controlling who gets to sport Hells Angel symbols.

"As Sonny put it, he doesn't want to see some jerk going down the street with his name on them," Mr. Clapp said.

Marketing the name, Mr. Clapp added, has "always been a source of commercial interest. That's why we found it hard to believe that Marvel didn't recognize that the name itself had considerable punch."

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