This week, Games Workshop, the makers of the popular and long-running Warhammer 40,000 series of games and tie-ins, created a bit of a stir when their lawyers began sending cease and desist letters to M.C.A Hogarth, for her use of the words ‘Space Marines’ in the title of one of her books.
This particular assertion of trademark law is ridiculous in a number of ways, the most salient being the use of the term ‘space marine’ in science fiction literature going all the way back to the 1930s. If that’s not ‘prior art‘ then I’m not sure what is. Web-comic author Howard Tayler sums up the hypocritical waters being fished here:
Because you asked: No, I do not think Games Workshop should be able to trademark “Space Marine.” It’s in the vernacular. See “Elf.”
— A Space Marine (@howardtayler) February 6, 2013
I won’t belabor the details, as there are plenty of those on the web already (Mr. Tayler has a more expansive take here.). But this is a reminder to all of use who write and edit for a living to keep trademarks and intellectual property law in mind as we work. For the most part, these issues don’t really come up that often. But if you are serious about publishing your latest and greatest, do some Google searches on material similar to your own and make sure that you’re on safe legal ground. A good editor (such as the one at this humble website) will also keep an ear to the ground as they make their way through your manuscript, looking for potential issues like these.
On a smaller scale, it’s always a good idea to do some research to see if any critical characters or plot elements in your material have too many similarities with something that you’ve been inspired by. Most writers who know what they’re about can take inspiration from antecedents and craft something new from them or create an obvious parody. But if your newest novel features a boy wizard with a scar, who then has to destroy some jewelry in a fiery pit… maybe you should rethink and put some distance between you and IP/trademark litigation or accusations of plagiarism. Of course, all literature owes to what’s gone before, but make sure you’re not straying too close to say… a blue-clad, red-caped super hero.
Oh… that reminds me: it might be a good idea to stay the heck away from the term ‘Super Hero,’ too.
So what do you think about the ‘Space Marine’ saga and how it affects creation? Have you writers out there ever had a plagiarism/IP ‘uh-oh’ moment while writing that made you abandon or re-write your text? Comment below!