Science fiction writer M.C.A. Hogarth recently had her eBook “Spots the Space Marine” taken down by Amazon because of the DCMA notice served by Games Workshop. They claim that she infringed on their intellectual property by using the term “space marine” in the title of her book.
Games Workshop is a company that is best known for their Warhammer series of miniature games. They have a Warhammer Fantasy setting which is a chock-full of elves and orcs and other stock fantasy characters. And then they have Warhammer 40,000 — a space opera setting which includes, you guessed it, some space marines.
At some point Games Workshop decided that they’re entitled to a trademark of the term “space marine.” Their lawyers have been aggressive about contacting various game companies and smacking them down for using the term. And now, they are going after science fiction authors for doing the same. According to M.C.A. Hogarth’s post, GW lawyers told her that they believe “their recent entrée into the e-book market gives them the common law trademark for the term ‘space marine’ in all formats.”
I’m not a lawyer. For all I know Games Workshop may legally have the high ground on this. But it doesn’t mean what they’re doing is right.
The term “space marine” has existed in science fiction for decades before Games Workshop decided to use it in their game. There’s a Wikipedia entry that catalogs many instances of such use from back in the 1930s. And here’s a cover of a 1936 issue of Amazing Stories featuring a space marine story:
Space Marines haven’t gone out of style in the 30s, either. Starcraft video game franchise uses them today. In 1997 there was a movie titled “Space Marines,” according to IMDB. Heinlein wrote about space marines in several of his stories. But, if Games Workshop has its way, the Heinleins of today and tomorrow will no longer be able to use this two-word combination.
This blows my mind, especially given just how much Warhammer games rely on the SF and fantasy tropes created by those who came before them. They did not invent space marines, and while they’re most welcome to use them, this use should not be exclusive.
Can you imagine Hasbro, the current owner of Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property, claiming that they own terms like “Magic User” or “Elf Wizard” because those are some of the character classes in D&D? Or perhaps suing fantasy writers over the use of the term “mana” since they also own Magic The Gathering? At some point the legalese needs to stop and become replaced with common sense.
If Hogarth were to enter a legal battle with Games Workshop, she may or may not emerge victorious. I don’t know, because — again — not a lawyer. But this isn’t likely to happen. It costs too much money to litigate and isn’t at all practical for someone making a few hundred bucks off an eBook to take on such a challenge. Fortunately, there is an alternative, and that is to win in the court of public opinion. If enough people speak out against the actions taken by Games Workshop, the people in charge may notice, and they might elect to back off.
You can spread the word via blogs and social media, and link back to M.C.A. Hogarth’s web site.
If you are a Games Workshop player you can ask the owner of your Friendly Local Game Store to express your displeasure to their Games Workshop sales rep.
Consider buying some of M.C.A.’s books to help her make up for the potential income loss caused by this book being removed from Amazon.
Let influential bloggers and journalists know. There are already some major sites that picked up the story (see BoingBoing post on this), but more is always better.
In a trend started by Fran Wilde, a number of SF writers added “Space Marine” to their name on Twitter, and they want others to do that, too.
If you are reading my blog, you’re very likely a reader (or writer) of science fiction. That means you should very much care about this case. Because, to quote Fran Wilde, they are trying to steal our words.