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Of Trademarks and Space Marines

What do you think of when you hear the term "Space Marine"? For many, it conjures images of Heinlein's Starship Troopers. For others, it's the tough hombres of the Colonial Marines in the Alien franchise. For a certain sort of gaming nerd the image conjures one of a tabletop miniature in a war game published by Games Workshop.

It's a term that's been part of science fiction for decades, but one greedy corporation is now making a grab to associate it with their use and their use alone, and siccing lawyers on anyone else who wants to use it.

The site I edit, Big Shiny Robot, brought this to my attention and it should be terrifying for writers of all stripes, but particularly indies.

Games Workshop, the company behind the Warhammer 40k game, has started asserting that ANY use of the term Space Marine infringes on their trademark and intellectual property. Recently, they went after the author MCA Hogarth and forcibly removed a self-published title on Amazon from the author.

Then it gets worse.
In their last email to me, Games Workshop stated that they believe that their recent entrĂ©e into the e-book market gives them the common law trademark for the term “space marine” in all formats. If they choose to proceed on that belief, science fiction will lose a term that’s been a part of its canon since its inception. Space marines were around long before Games Workshop. But if GW has their way, in the future, no one will be able to use the term “space marine” without it referring to the space marines of the Warhammer 40K universe.
Games Workshop is asserting that ANY use of the term is theirs. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is over the line.

Now, here is her cover for the book they have an issue with, Spots the Space Marine:

Does that look like anyone, in a hundred years, would confuse this with the battling tabletop marines of the Warhammer 40K universe?



This is not something that we can let stand. Those of us who work in the creative industries know how difficult it can be to fight against these corporations with deep pockets and expensive lawyers, and here were are scraping together scratch for a cup of coffee. Ms. Hogarth needs help with this and can't possibly afford a lawyer to fight these guys.

What can we do?

Well, I have a proposal and it goes way beyond just writing letters, either to Games Workshop or our congressperson. It goes beyond screaming about this from the highest hilltops that we have on the Internet. An age ago, when I was in high school debate, there was a technique we'd use to spread the opposing team thin, so they couldn't possibly answer every argument, inevitably drop some, and would then lose the debate.

Let's spread Games Workshop.

Gather every artist and writer we know and let's all write or draw our own personal interpretations of what Space Marines would be. The world could always use more iterations of military space fiction, it could always use more creative interpretations of what a Space Marine could be. We'll all put our short stories for sale, make art prints and sell those. Anything you can think of.

If suddenly there are hundreds of new Space Marine stories for sale, it certainly would dilute their claim to ownership of the phrase, it would put many more ideas of what Space Marines could be into the aether, and it would force them to police more vigilantly the term. It's going to cost them more money than it's worth trying to track all of the instances down and the more of us that get shut down by their greed machine, the more negative publicity it creates for them.

Or, they could simply drop it. I understand protecting their intellectual property, but this novel, and any story that happens to use the incredibly generic term "Space Marine" simply isn't their IP.

Who's with me?


d'Alchemist said…
Like howling at the moon, you bark at a symptom not a problem. The rapid, accelerated progress of information and science has stripped the Constitutional mandate to protect intellectual property, namely patents and copyrights of its original intent. The laws written a hundred or more years ago are inadequate to fill that mandate and need to be changed.

But leaving that chore to inept politicians is like barking at the remote stars. IF and when they respond, so much time will have past that their uninformed laws will make things worse.

Artists and engineers need to formulate and propose new laws. Someone, who really cares, should set up an internet forum... a website?... to let the people who understand and who will benefit most hash out the details.

First, a few would write a proposed law. Structure a set of new law in the legalese format of existing law, but with more clarity and perhaps 10% of the words. Post it and let us who care pick at it.

Set a deadline of a year? 18 months? When the finished product of a hundred revisions would be a) submitted to Congress, and/or b) proposed as an initiative in several states.

Difficult? Yes. Meaningful? YES!!!

Congress would act quickly out of self defense, and under the scrutiny of the people rather than behind closed doors.

Stop Barking, gather a pack and BITE!
Luna Corbden said…
Actually, there are two battles going on here, and in this case, the battle was actually won. There is the Intellectual Property (IP) enforcement by the government, and IP enforcement by corporations. In this case, GW got the trademark via the government, and then used it with Amazon to get Amazon to take down an "offending" book. And in this case, Amazon responded to the howling at the moon quite well. In response to the Massive Internet Outrage Machine™, they told GW to go screw themselves, and reinstated Spots of the Space Marine. The internet outrage machine is actually quite powerful. I've seen it get results quite a few times. I've even seen proposed laws fail in Congress due to it. (And I've seen it fail to get results. And I've seen it do bad things as well.)

Now GW's battle is with other corporations (the next content-provider they decide to complain to) and the government (if they should choose to sue Amazon and the author of Spots of the Space Marine). Chances are, GW will think twice about doing either. They tried to bully an independent author via Amazon and failed. Their brand was tarnished as a result. If they're smart, they will back off and stop enforcing their Space Marine trademark.

Your other ideas are also being done. Examples of new IP practices include the open source software movement (General Public Licenses) and in the creative fields of writing and art (creative commons licenses). Others are proposing changes to the patent, copyright, and trademark systems. They've been doing so since the 1990s (or earlier?).

Unfortunately, the power tends to go towards the corporations. Disney is thought to have the most power in this situation, and since the 90s, copyright law has gotten worse, not better. I believe copyright time has been extended twice? And laws like the DMCA make it criminal (not just civil) to circumvent copy protection schemes.

I believe that culture will change in ways as to make previous IP laws unsustainable (more indie creators will fight for power over their own works, and will win in the court of public opinion and it will become increasingly more difficult to enforce IP law in the courts). Corporate creations will become less relevant as the internet breaks people down into smaller and smaller subcultures who want less Mickey Mouse and more indie content.

Meanwhile, the Outrage Machine is winning many battles. Don't discount howling at the moon.

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