British company Games Workshop, well known for producing tabletop wargames and other products set in various fantasy universes, has claimed that it owns the idea of future space marines and that nobody can write books featuring astro-bootnecks* without its consent.
Last December the company succeeded in getting the novel Spots the Space Marine removed from Amazon's Kindle e-book store on the basis that it infringed on trademarks held by Games Workshop. These trademarks are based on the company's Warhammer 40K fictional far-future setting, which it uses in various products. These include tie-in novels depicting the exploits of the space marines of that universe, also known as the "Adeptus Astartes".
As any reader of science fiction will know, the idea of future space marines is a staple of the genre and was commonly used by writers from the 1930s onward - well prior to the existence of Games Workshop and the creation of the Warhammer 40K setting. Examples include the space marines described by such sci-fi giants as E E "Doc" Smith and Robert A Heinlein*, plus others too numerous to list here.
The idea was, in fact, naturally bound to arise as soon as people began to speculate about space travel. This would lead to the idea of space ships, thus to space navies - and thus inevitably to space marines.
The Warhammer 40K space marines - quite apart from being called space marines to begin with - also draw on many ideas previously come up with by other creators. They drop into combat from orbiting starships, wear powered armour and carry weapons known as "flamers" among others, just like Heinlein's cap troopers.
The Adeptus Astartes marines also have many distinctive features which Games Workshop might justifiably claim as their own: they are organised like templars or warrior monks rather than in conventional military units, they are routinely surgically modified, they can in some cases spit acid venom, they sometimes eat the flesh of dead enemies etc.
None of these latter Warhammer 40K-specific ideas are used in Spots the Space Marine, written by author M C A Hogarth. The novel - actually written as a play - tells the story of a female 30-something reservist called up to fight in a war against aliens.
Even more than I want to save Spots the Space Marine, I want someone to save all space marines for the genre I grew up reading. I want there to be a world where Heinlein and E E Smith’s space marines can live alongside mine and everyone else’s, and no one has the hubris to think that they can own a fundamental genre trope and deny it to everyone else.
As the details of the affair have become more widely known, swarms of science fiction fans have expressed outrage at Games Workshop's conduct on Twitter using the hashtag #spacemarines.
The Register asked Amazon UK staff to comment: we've been informed that the matter has been passed on the corporate headquarters in Seattle, so we don't expect to get any answers immediately. We'll update this as and when we know more on Amazon's position.
Contacted by the Register regarding the affair, Games Workshop representatives repeatedly refused to offer any comment. We did note that the company's website has this to say:
At Games Workshop, we believe that how you behave does matter. We believe this so strongly that we have written it down in the Games Workshop Book. There is a section in the book where we talk about the values we expect all staff to demonstrate in their working lives. These values are Honesty, Courage and Humility.
The Register also contacted Ms Hogarth for details on her discussions with Games Workshop and Amazon. She informs us that she may not be able to release these due to ongoing legal proceedings.
We'll be back on the story as and when we get more.
Regular readers will be well aware that the Register's editorial position is all in favour of reasonable intellectual property rights and their enforcement. We wouldn't suggest for a minute that a writer should be allowed to produce books about the Adeptus Astartes or any perceptible imitation of Warhammer 40K without consent from Games Workshop. We are no friends to the freetard or the plagiarist.
But the suggestion that Games Workshop invented the idea of space marines - that nobody can write books about or otherwise use the idea of fictional troops called "space marines" without their consent - is ridiculous and the attempt to advance it is contemptible. The company is abusing its trademarks on the phrase - and indeed it doesn't actually appear to hold any mark covering electronic books. Amazon should have rejected GW's complaint out of hand, rather than complying with it.
Games Workshop, in advancing this claim, are effectively attempting to snatch ownership of a very basic idea which was well developed by other (often rather more able) creators well before GW and WH40K came along. This move is particularly cynical given the company's own obvious use of many of those other previous creators' ideas in developing the Adeptus Astartes.
It's also worth noting that GW didn't mount their attack against any well-known author, games developer, publisher or movie studio. Instead they chose a comparatively unknown indie writer who would clearly have difficulty getting Amazon to listen to her, and in finding effective representation.
It's a sad day for your correspondent here on the Reg space-marine desk to see Games Workshop behaving like this, after its long and illustrious history producing many fine offerings. The company and I go way back: I made my debut as a paid writer in GW house mag White Dwarf as a teenager long ago.
Games Workshop are quite correct to say it matters how one behaves. But the company can't realistically claim that it is demonstrating any honesty, courage or humility in this affair.
I won't be buying anything from it again unless it changes course radically on this, and I'd suggest that any true science-fiction or fantasy fan might consider doing the same. ®
*"Bootneck": British service slang for marines, usually the Royal Marines. Long ago in the days of sail, Royal Marines in full parade uniform had to wear rigid leather stocks round their necks in the same way that landbased soldiers of the period did - this was thought to improve their military bearing. The sailors that the marines served alongside, free from any such custom, coined the terms "bootneck" and "leatherneck" to refer to them. "Leatherneck" came to be used mainly of US Marines.
**Smith's marines were close combat troops of the Galactic Patrol, the spacegoing naval/law-enforcement organisation in which the Lensmen also served. Many people consider that the power-armoured interstellar soldiers of Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers were space marines, but the term wasn't used in that book - the "cap troopers" belonged to a force called the Mobile Infantry. However Heinlein did specifically refer to "space marines" in the novel Space Cadet and the short stories Misfit and The Long Watch.
Many people use the term "space marine" in reference to all science-fiction stories in any format which depict futuristic space-travelling close combat troops. Thus the Master Chief from Halo would be seen by some as being a space marine (much though his rank would suggest to US readers that he is actually a navy man), as would the Mobile Infantry of Starship Troopers, the Colonial Marines in Aliens, the UNEF troops in The Forever War etc.
Lewis Page served in the Royal Navy for 11 years and during that time successfully completed commando training with the Royal Marines. Before that he was often a GW customer, though never for miniatures: more the RPGs.