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Battle is on for “Space Marine”

Friday February 15, 2013 at 8:53pm
Battle is on for “Space Marine”

It was a shock to American writer Maggie Hogarth back in December 2012 when she discovered that her book Spots the Space Marine had been removed from Amazon. The online retailer took Hogarth’s e-book off its site when Games Workshop asserted a trade mark claim on the phrase ‘space marines’. Bewildered by the move and unable to afford the legal costs to challenge Games Workshop, Ms Hogarth immediately wrote a blog post about the situation.

In her blog post, Ms Hogarth expressed worry that science fiction could lose one of its fundamental ideas if Games Workshop started to actively assert claim over the phrase: "Space marines were around long before Games Workshop. But if GW has its way, in the future, no one will be able to use the term "space marine" without it referring to the space marines of the Warhammer 40K universe."

Within a day of posting about the row, more than 50,000 people read Ms Hogarth’s post and it provoked responses from leading members of the sci-fi community, including best-selling authors Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. As reported by the BBC, John Scalzi, a prominent Sci-Fi author and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, had very strong views on the matter as well. In his own blog post, he explained that the term ‘space marine’ was a generic term established long before Games Workshop had started using it, and any assertion to claim ownership on the term was absurd.

In fact, the term can be traced to a 1932 short story by Bob Olsen entitled Captain Brink of the Space Marines printed in pulp magazine Amazing Stories. As documented by TV Tropes, the term became more well-known when EE Smith’s series of Lensmen stories were written in the late 1930s into the 1940s. More recently, Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, first published in the late 1950s, also established the term more firmly.

Regardless of its provenance, the term ‘space marine’ was registered as a US trade mark by Games Workshop for “board games, parlour games, war games, hobby games, toy models and miniatures of buildings, scenery, figures, automobiles, vehicles, planes, trains and card games and paint, sold therewith.” A similar European trade mark in the mid 1990s extended protection to include “paper, cardboard and goods made from these materials, not included in other classes; printed matter; bookbinding material; photographs; stationery…”

As the material in question of trade mark infringement was actually an e-book rather than “printed matter”, one could argue this was a strong case in support of Ms Hogarth. In fact, this point in addition to the fact that the term “space marine” has been in common use for decades within the sci-fi community may have strengthened her case. Whatever the reason, with help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Amazon reviewed and reversed its original decision on the issue and re-instated the eBook on its site. Great news for Ms Hogarth, who explained the Kindle version of her book was a prime source of her revenue.

Technically, Games Workshop could press for legal action against Hogarth. Even though it may not have a specific trade mark registration of ‘space marine’ for printed matter in the US, it could still cite the 1946 Lanham Act which argues that “registration is not a prerequisite to federal trademark protection”. All they would need to do is prove that the term ‘space marine’ was synonymous with its famous Warhammer branding. Regardless, Games Workshop may choose to settle the matter owing to the vast amount of negative publicity surrounding its actions thus far.

For now, Maggie Hogarth is in the clear and thousands of sci-fi supporters feel vindicated with Amazon’s turn around. What the future holds for ‘space marine(s)’ is unclear; perhaps another battle will ensue.

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