If I say the phrase “space marine,” you probably know what I’m talking about, right? Halo, Aliens, Starship Troopers, Starcraft… highly trained men and women equipped with oversized future weaponry, a thirst for alien blood, and a disdain for intellectual pursuits (except for that one guy… there’s always that one guy). It’s a name that writers and readers of science fiction have been using to describe a kind of character since Heinlein.
“Space marine” is also a registered trademark of Games Workshop, the publishers of the Warhammer 4000 strategy games, and you’d think that in deference to the history of the term and the sources that inspired the genre in which Warhammer is set, they wouldn’t throw their weight around too much on its account. But as author M.C.A. Hogarth found last year, and the writing community found out this week, you’d be wrong.
Hogarth first encountered Games Workshop’s claim on the phrase “space marine” in mid-December, when Amazon.com took down her published ebook Spots the Space Marine due to a legal notice from Games Workshop and refused to sell it. Games Workshop initially acquired the trademark when they released an expansion to the first edition of Epic, a game set in the Warhammer universe, and named it “Space Marine.” Later, they made the phrase the subtitle (Epic: Space Marines) of the game’s rerelease. It turns out that recently, Games Workshop started publishing books digitally, and since they are now in the ebook market, they feel free to extend their hold over “space marine” outside of the tabletop gaming market and into this new arena. Cory Doctorow points out, however, that Games Workshop had no legal hold over Amazon.com:
Takedown notices are a copyright thing, a creature of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. They don’t apply to trademark claims. This is Amazon taking voluntary steps that are in no way required in law… Games Workshop’s strategy is to make “space marine” less generic by launching high profile, bullying attacks on everyone who uses it, so that there will come a day when people hearing the phrase immediately conclude that it must be related to Games Workshop, because everyone know what colossal dicks they are whenever anyone else uses the phrase.
Over the course of the intervening months, Hogarth remained in dialogue with an unrelenting Games Workshop, and finally went public about the whole thing and her feelings of helplessness. Getting the money together to hire legal council and then actually challenge Games Workshop’s claim is beyond her, as an author who uses her her spare time primarily to write, and her writing income primarily to pay for her daughter’s education, a factor that almost certainly made her seem like an easier target for Games Workshop’s lawyers. She doesn’t even keep all of the profits from Spots the Space Marine, donating a portion of them to the Wounded Warrior Project in tribute to the actual servicemen and women who helped her complete her research for the novel.
I used to own a registered trademark. I understand the legal obligations of trademark holders to protect their IP. A Games Workshop trademark of the term “Adeptus Astartes” is completely understandable. But they’ve chosen instead to co-opt the legacy of science fiction writers who laid the groundwork for their success. Even more than I want to save Spots the Space Marine, I want someone to save all space marines for the genre I grew up reading. I want there to be a world where Heinlein and E.E. Smith’s space marines can live alongside mine and everyone else’s, and no one has the hubris to think that they can own a fundamental genre trope and deny it to everyone else.
Going public has hopefully paid off, with lots of writers and authors on the internet spreading the word. She’s started talking to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group that provides legal services to protect new technology (like the internet) and people using new technology (like folks who publish books on the internet), particularly if it feels they’re being affected by legal threats that don’t have much actual morality or even legality behind them. She’s pledged to keep everybody updated on the ongoing situation at her website here, and if you’d like to buy Spots the Space Marine regardless of whether Amazon.com, the biggest ebook retailer around, is selling it, you can get it right here, and even preview the first 15%.
(via lots of tipsters.)