Row blows up over ownership of 'space marine' term

image captionGames Workshop is best known for its tabletop wargames

UK toymaker Games Workshop has been criticised for asserting a trademark claim to the phrase 'space marines'.

The claim emerged when it was used to get an American ebook about the futuristic soldiers taken off Amazon.

Science fiction writers have called the firm "absurd" for saying it has a trademark to the use of the term in fiction.

A UK media lawyer said more and more firms were using trademark law to protect their creations.

Generic term

The row started in December 2012 when US writer Maggie Hogarth found out that her novel called "Spots the Space Marine" had been removed from the Amazon ebook store following a complaint from Games Workshop.

In emails sent to Ms Hogarth this week, Games Workshop claims that its entry into digital publishing gives it a "common law trademark claim" over the phrase.

Ms Hogarth wrote a blogpost about the row and expressed her fear that if Games Workshop started actively pursuing its claim, science fiction could lose one of its "fundamental" ideas. Ms Hogarth said a lack of funds meant she was unable to defend herself against the claim. However, she is now in touch with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which campaigns on digital rights, about the case.

The blogpost received a huge amount of publicity and has provoked responses from best-selling SF authors Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross and John Scalzi. Many people sent messages to Games Workshop's Twitter account using the #spacemarines hashtag criticising the firm.

Mr Scalzi, who is currently president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, said it was "absurd" for the firm to claim ownership of the phrase and its use in literature. In a blogpost, Mr Scalzi said it was "pretty damn generic" long before Games Workshop began using it to describe its toy soldiers and in tabletop games,

A spokesman for Games Workshop said it had a "blanket policy" of not talking to the media and had no comment to make about the row or its trademark claim.

Media and intellectual property lawyer Susan Hall from DWF said Games Workshop might struggle to assert its trademark claim in America.

"In the US they'll come straight up against the First Amendment and that's one issue they'll have to overcome," she said.

Ms Hall said Games Workshop could launch a similar protection campaign in Europe as it had had a registered trademark for the term "space marine" since 1995. Its trademark claim covers the use of the word in connection with many aspects of tabletop gaming and video games, she said, but also extended to published works.

"If you have a registered trademark you can stop people using it in the course of trade for goods that are not yours or licensed or approved by you," she said. "It puts the person with the mark in a very strong position."

Many firms, she said, were registering trademarks to help them keep control of intellectual properties that were now out of copyright. There were dangers in this bid for control, said Ms Hall.

"You need strong IP laws," she said, "but you need to have the ability to rub up against those in a way that allows people to be creative and allows creative freedom."

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.