Today’s thing people in e-mail are clamoring for me to comment about: This, in which the sale of a self-published book by M.C.A. Hogarth was blocked from sale on Amazon after Games Workshop complained that it violated its trademark for the term “space marines.” If the linked post above is at all accurate, apparently Games Workshop, which uses the term “space marines” in its Warhammer 40,000 games and has a trademark in that area, has branched out into handling its own ebooks and therefore believes that trademark carries over into the literary world as well.
I am not a lawyer, so factor that in here. That said: Games Workshop, really? You know, a simple search on the term “space marines” over at Google Books shows a crapload of prior art for “space marines” in science fiction literature, from the 1936 Amazing Tales novelette “The Space Marines and the Slavers” by Bob Olsen, to Robert Heinlein’s novel Space Cadet, to the very recent use of the term in The Sheriff of Yrnameer by Michael Reubens and So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel by Phil Hornshaw and Nick Hurwitch. There is no lack of evidence that the phrase “space marines” has been used rather promiscuously in science fiction literature up to this point.
To argue, as Games Workshop must, that the phrase “space marines” has a distinctive character in science fiction literature relating only to their product involves, shall we say, a certain studied ignorance of the field. Table top games? Possibly; I’m not an expert. Science fiction literature? You have got to be kidding. It’s pretty damn generic in this field, and was long before 1987, when Warhammer 40,000 was created in game form . Nor does it seem, as far as I know, that Games Workshop attempted to claim trademark on the phrase “space marine” before, despite a veritable plethora of Warhammer 40K tie-in literature using the phrase.
So, yeah, this seems like pretty weak sauce on the part of Games Workshop. If it believes it has a trademark claim it has to defend it, but the fact it believes it has a legitimate trademark claim on “space marine” in the field of science fiction literature is absurd (or, alternately, if it believes it doesn’t have a legitimate trademark claim but is attempting an intellectual rights land grab anyway, it is odious). It’s easy enough to pull this crap on a self-published author who doesn’t have the resources to fight the assertion. I’ll be interested to see what happens if they try to pull it on an actual publisher, with actual lawyers. That should be fun.
(As people will ask what this means in terms of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I am currently president: Well, obviously it’s on my radar. I’m not going to say anything more in that capacity for now.)
In the meantime, I don’t know. As apparently Games Workshop is asserting this trademark in the field of science fiction literature through its expansion into ebook distribution, maybe this is a good pro bono case for the EFF. Someone go tell them. Alternately Games Workshop could just stop being jerks and let this writer sell her book. Seems doubtful anyone will be buying it instead of a Warhammer 40k story, or will confuse it for one.