GW: Of Trademarks, Copyrights, and Overreach

OVERREACH – transitive verb – to defeat (oneself) by seeking to do or gain too much

an editorial by Jonathan Lister

Games Workshop’s reach may have exceeded its grasp…

By now, everyone knows that the company tried to instigate the removal of a book by an independent author from the market because of its use of the term “Space Marine.” GW claimed trademark infringement, prompting Amazon to remove the book from its digital shelves. Then, the Internet swung into action. The swift response, spearheaded by the likes of Wil Wheaton and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, shoved Amazon into “reviewing” the claim, and they restored the author’s work to their digital storefront for sale. Games Workshop has taken a beating for what many see as its bullying tactics of small-market authors and sites with no real wherewithal to fight back. Their actions have also fueled debates over copyright, trademark and intellectual property laws. Is Games Workshop trying to copyright the dictionary? Can anyone “own” words in a legal sense? Yes, and the same time, emphatically no.

Trademark, Copyright and Intellectual Property: The Unholy Trinity

The terms generate confusion, general hand ringing and no small amount of nerd rage. From the U.S. Copyright Office: copyright protects original works of authorship when fixed in a tangible medium – in print, online, sheet music, even software code. Trademark guards words, phrases and symbols when they signify a business or a product for sale. No creator needs to apply for a copyright. It exists from the moment a work fixes in an accessible medium, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Those rules don’t apply for business trademarks – need to apply for those. How does all that flimflam matter in this current casing involving Games Workshop? Like this:

  • The book in question, Spots the Space Marine, is a work protected by copyright law. 
  • Games Workshop claimed to hold a trademark on “Space Marine” as its intellectual property.
  • It’s illegal to use a trademark, real or imagined, to bludgeon an artist’s copyright. The book in this case didn’t signify a business, or seek to profit from Games Workshop’s products through some casual association.

For there to be infringement, you have to do the deed – infringe. If Maggie Hogarth had created cover art using GW iconography and used her work to fool readers into thinking the book had some Black Library affiliation, then the company’s case seems more legitimate. She didn’t, and as a result, GW’s claim has more holes in it than my car’s last muffler.

For the record, the first time the term ‘Space Marine’ appeared in fiction was 1932.

Are GW’s Actions Good for the Market?

Know thy enemy. In choosing to play its hand on this issue against so small an opponent, Games Workshop has branded itself as a bully – no getting around that. Internet advocacy groups will watch them more closely, as if they weren’t already. At the same time, if you’re Maggie Hogarth, you can’t ask for better (free) publicity for your work. As of publication, the book ranks in the top 40 in its science fiction genre on Amazon and in the top 7,000 in the entire web store.

What can’t come out of this is fear. No artist, including me, wants to see an idea stifled or a story go unexplored for the dread of incurring a corporation’s wrath or worse, the attention of their legal team. When a business oversteps its bounds, there have to be people who throw a stiff arm in its path. Thanks to the Internet, the little guy has just that: All of you.

Bio: Jonathan Lister is a full-time writer with work appearing in outlets of The Houston Chronicle, USA Today and Image Magazine. His debut work of fiction, Crossroads, is forthcoming from J. Taylor Publishing in November 2013.

Editor’s Note – As of time of publication Games-Workshop’s Corporate Facebook page has been down for over 24 hours, and has been confirmed as being “removed” by Black Library.  Read the full details and lots of reader commentary here.

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