From time to time, Dear Reader, I get annoyed about things. I usually feel the need to convey this displeasure, which is why on this blog you find rants on such topics as Jan Moir and Trafigura; the BNP; the Daily Mail; etc., etc… Are those things deserving of rants? Certainly. Are they hideous blights upon the cultural health of the nation? Without doubt. But they are not things in which I have a personal stake. The offensiveness of the Daily Mail does not actually impinge upon my ability to get on with my life.
However, gallumphing over the horizon comes the pustuled mastodon that is Games Workshop. And they actually have managed to pick a fight where I have a personal level of involvement.
But first, a few brief words of explanation. Games Workshop (GW) is a model manufacturer specialising in tabletop wargaming figures and vehicles, concentrating on fantasy and science-fiction games called ‘Warhammer’ and ‘Warhammer 40,000’ respectively. (They also do figures for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’). My own involvement with the company’s products is fairly minimal – their paintbrushes are ghastly but some of the acrylic paints they sell are really good. Their scenic products are done better – and cheaper – by suppliers in the world of model railways. So I’m reasonably familiar wih their products, but I seldom have need of them. Basically, up until now, GW and I have nodded at each other in passing and carried on in our own ways.
That has now changed.
It has changed because of a woman called M.C.A Hogarth. She is a writer of science fiction and the author of an original novel called ‘Spots the Space Marine’. She made it available as an e-book on Amazon…until Games Workshop told Amazon to remove it from sale. You can read the whole sorry tale here, but the gist of it is this: GW believes that now that they are publishing e-books set in the universe of their sci-fi and fantasy wargames they own the common law trademark on the phrase ‘space marine’. Essentially, as far as GW is concerned, “All your space marines are belong to us.” And so Ms Hogarth, whose fiction has nothing to do with that of GW, was told by them to cease and desist.
This is staggering overreach, and for a very basic and simple reason: the term ‘space marine’ is a common usage trope in science fiction that goes back at least to 1932, before the founders of GW were even born. E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith made mention of them in his ‘Lensman’ series, but the doyen of the phrase is Robert Heinlein, who used the term in a number of novels and then defined it (albeit not by that name) in ‘Starship Troopers’, which then became required reading for the actors playing Marines in the film ‘Aliens’. ‘Space Marines’ is a phrase with a long and distinguished pedigree in science fiction, and for GW to come along and claim trademark on it is simply ludicrous.
I am not the only one to think so. John Scalzi, an author of military SF and the current chairman of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, was most displeased. BoingBoing joined the clamour of reprobation. Various other authors and knowledgeable types weighed in, as did the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organisation devoted to preserving and defending internet freedom). The upshot of all this heaped opprobrium is that Amazon has quietly reinstated Maggie Hogarth’s book for sale.
Games Workshop has stayed fairly silent on the whole matter, except for a Facebook post explaining that they were required – somehow – to make the claim of trademark infringement (however spurious everyone else knew it to be)…but that Facebook post has now been taken down. In any case, it is difficult to imagine what on earth they could say to mollify anyone at this point. They have annoyed science-fiction authors, readers, supporters of internet freedom, and many others besides. One group of people I could imagine as being more than a little annoyed are the individuals on this list; another group might be the scientists working on this concept.
They have also annoyed me, and, like I say, I do have a dog in this fight. My novels are military SF and they feature space marines. (Quite apart from anything else, I have an affection for Marines anyway and so there is no way I’m not including them). I am relieved to discover that GW, with this whole sorry escapade, have created a phenomenally huge PR disaster for themselves and are unlikely to try it again any time soon (it’s hard to imagine a more sure-fire way to annoy people than to say “We’ve decided we own something you know to be yours, and if you start using it we’re going to take it away – even if, as in Ms Hogarth’s case, some of the proceeds from sales of the book were going to a veterans’ charity”).
One final note. I work with a nation-wide model retailer. There has been some discussion, recently, between all levels of management about whether or not we ought to stock Games Workshop products. On the basis of this debacle, and seeing the contempt with which GW appears to treat its customers, fanbase, stock-holders and all media outlets, I will be ensuring that my objection to forming any kind of business relationship with the company is heard at every level. There is no way I want either myself or my store to be associated with Games Workshop.
Per Mare, Per Terram, Ad Astra.