The space marine and the suspension of disbelief.

I’m going to start with a quote from one history’s nastier villains, a man who understood the lie, the deception, the manipulation of perception and… was very good at demonizing others (the Jews) for what he did himself so well.

“In this they proceeded on the sound principle that the magnitude of a lie always contains a certain factor of credibility, since the great masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil, and that, therefore, in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds, they more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads, and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.…” (p. 231 of the Manheim translation, Mein Kamph, Adolf Hitler.)

Which actually has two things in it for writers of fiction — because what we’re telling is lies we want people to believe – or, even though they know they’re not true (because duh, we’re writing fiction, and outside occasional nutbars, no-one thinks that we’re writing about the real Atlantis or a real space marine) at least while immersed in, accept as true. If we hope they’ll actually believe us afterward, we’re not fiction writers but politicians, or PR writers, and it is to be hoped that most writers have just that little bit more self-esteem than these delightful people.

The first part of this, of course, is that even in fiction, readers assume you’re telling (at least in bulk about general things) the truth, because actually few of us are pathological liars. So: even if you’ve never been a marine, and you’re writing about space marines, as long as you don’t drop vast and obvious clangers, people will assume that’s not a wildly inaccurate representation.

The second, of course, is that a good liar – or writer of fiction, or propagandist – always includes enough truth to salt the claim. The truth doesn’t have to have any relevance, or be the whole truth, but it in itself is true, and generally known to be. They leave out the bits that would show the statement to be a lie.

Take this ( as example. It contains several things which are true, generally known and verifiable. For example:
“Games Workshop owns and protects many valuable trademarks in a number of territories and classes across the world. For example, ‘Warhammer’ and ‘Space Marine’ are registered trademarks in a number of classes and territories”.
Which is, for instance, true: What is carefully left out is that in the US trademarks for the term Space Marine are: “board games, parlor games, war games, hobby games, toy models and miniatures of buildings, scenery, figures, automobiles, vehicles, planes, trains and card games and paint, sold therewith.” You may notice a conspicuous absence of ‘books, novels, printed matter, e-books, web pages etc etc’. So in the US, they have no trademark rights to anything to do with fiction, writing etc. Or to take it to UK (which would be EU trademarks ) “Paper, cardboard and goods made from these materials, not included in other classes; printed matter; bookbinding material, photographs, stationery, adhesives for stationery or household purposes; artists’ materials; paint brushes; typewriters and office requisites (except furniture); instructional and teaching material (except apparatus); plastic materials for packaging (not included in other classes); playing cards; printers’ type; printing blocks”

Once again you may notice the conspicuous absence of electronic media. You may – if you have even made a cursory examination of trademark law, realize 1) The UK trademark should never have been granted (the term is generic and is widely used in the field referred- you can’t trademark apples as fruit, and space marines were common in print, and even in war games before this.) 2) That it has failed the basic requirement of trademark holders from its inception, and is therefore void. But the effective suspension of disbelief technique is well applied: part of the statement in itself is true – it just leaves out all the relevant information which would totally invalidate the rest of the statement.

The second part, of course, is that having got people to believe you, you can then enter into the big lie not just a little one – for instance you can talk about space marines under siege in a vast asteroid.

People will suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy the story. Or, if you’re running the PR for the company that did this, as Kate wrote about last week you can slither the following big lie out. “Whenever we are informed of, or otherwise discover, a commercially available product whose title is or uses a Games Workshop trademark without our consent, we have no choice but to take reasonable action”

Now what makes this big lie so effective is once again that it contains a part of the truth, a part most of us know: You need to defend your trademark. Nothing about ‘titles’. That’s a… misleading trick.

What is left out, of course is: 1)You actually have to have the rights;

2) and to have them you have to have defended them against basically any non trivial usage.

3) You have to have defended them THROUGHOUT the trademark period. If you have neglected to do so for IIRC 5 years in the US, and a similar period in most other places, you’ve lost it if challenged.

So: Games Workshop had no rights at all to threaten M. C. A. Hogarth with trademark infringement. 1)They don’t have the e-rights, 2)They’ve never defended them against some very non-trivial use in print fiction in the UK- RAH reprints, Weber, Ringo, hell, even yours truly and Eric Flint. All of these had at the time of their action sold 10 000 times what Hogarth had when they took the action (thanks to their behavior Spots the Space Marine may now have outsold these).

Let’s be frank: prior to their little performance, Spots the Space Marine was a perfect example of inconsequential use. Nowhere, anywhere, outside of the fevered imagination of the Games Workshop PR writer is there a statute saying a book title is somehow important and consequential, and the extensive use in books which have orders of magnitude more readers is not.

3) The term has been in use in fiction since 1932, pretty well continuously, and in electronic publication just about since its inception. My own use, non-trivial, exceeds the 8 years.

This sentence therefore is simply not true at all: “Trademarks as opposed to use of a word in prose or everyday language are two very different things. Games Workshop is always vigilant in protecting the former, but never makes any claim to owning the latter.”

It made a claim to owning the latter, where it did not own it, and it is whether the use is minor or inconsequential that is important, not where it is used. Oh and its actions were anything but reasonable.

Which brings us back full circle to the question of why one tells the big lie in the first place?

You could want to develop a bad taste mustache, and try and instill your dictatorship and murder on the world, kill millions, cause vast suffering death misery and destruction and shame yourself in history for human perpetuity.

You could, like your average author, merely want to suspend disbelief so that the reader enjoys the book, and you make some money.

Or you could be using harassment and intimidation (rather like Hitler in the early days, really) to acquire the IP for print or electronic media. You know, put the frighteners onto authors by threatening expensive legal challenges, getting Amazon to play sidekick because they don’t want any part in a fight that will cost them, and not make them a penny, and then taking advantage of the OTHER area of trademark not mentioned by the nice (in the old sense) PR writer: that a trademark can be registered on something you have exclusive and active use of. In other words: IP creep. It costs the large corporate almost nothing. Trademark infringement threats are notoriously expensive to defend against, and very difficult to recover costs – even when the attack is totally spurious and farcical. The chances of substantial damages are virtually non-existent. It is law skewed to support trademark holders… and then being abused to bully and take the IP of others.

Or maybe you were a… genius in the legal department needing a few billable hours, and not worrying too much about the legality or ethics of your company’s position. After all, a self-published author is not going to be able to afford to challenge you.

So: which ever of the above you think the case is, my fellow writers, please DO use the term space marine in your fiction. Some of you won’t be trivial, and if the term widespread and generic, they have less chance of IP creep. While you’re at it I would look to using warhammers in your fantasy – the dear PR writer said we were welcome to. I draw the line at ‘orcs’ – that’s too much like claiming ‘space marine’ is yours.


  1. Small question, I think. Back in the day, companies with legitimate trademarks often advertised in Writer’s Digest and similar publications to help make people aware of their trademark. In fact, if I remember right in the law of mass communications course that I took back in the early 70s, such advertising was an essential part of protecting your trademark. Has GW ever advertised? You know, the ones that say, “Please blow your nose in a handkerchief or tissue, but never a [trademark term of your choice], because that’s our trademark.” Something like “If your warriors wear space suits, they might be space fighters, cosmic clobberers, or even solar defenders, but never, ever Space Marines ™ because only Game Workshop has the real Space Marines ™” I don’t think I have ever seen such an ad. Hey, if tissues, detergents, foods, and such have to do it, shouldn’t the gamey crowd, too?

    1. I’ve never blown my nose on a Space Marine ™ or wiped any other bit of my anatomy with one. I don’t think there is any obligation to do this, it’s merely pre-emptive, and more expensive than merely using DCMA – which they have no right to (trademarks are not copyright infringement.) I also think they knew full well they had a very weak claim to the term, at least in fiction (like not at all in the US) because it is generic, and very much describing apples as apples and then refusing to let other apple sellers call their product apples.

  2. This whole flap did get me to buy the book from Smashwords, and I saw that her other titles also looked interesting, so she may get more of my money in the future. Next thing you know, GW will be suing her for not paying them for the publicity that they have given her.

    1. There is no doubt that in this case, their attempt at intimidation and general behavior since lost them customers and gained Maggie Hogarth customers. And in the end, made at least the use of ‘space marine’ safe. But what a bunch of nasty pieces of work. Their games are derived from sf and fantasy. Fed and nurtured by OUR readers. And then they turn around and try to kick us out? Yeah, Riiiiight. Live-bait.

      1. I agree wholeheartedly, Dave. I’m glad GW’s “strategy” backfired. I’m very glad the SF&F community got up in arms and got the word out. And I’m even more glad that the EFF got involved and forced Amazon to put the e-book copy back up.

        Eventually GW will try this stunt again, probably over some other trademarked common term. At that point, I hope they get their collective butts handed to them. (Again.)

  3. OK, the reason some of the great military texts of Earth happened to survive on the planet where my current WIP takes place is because a few of the settlers were retired space marines who obtained colonization bonuses in exchange for training some of the other colonists in self defense. Solves a plot question rather well, too. Thanks for the idea, Dave. 🙂

  4. “In space, no one can hear you bloviate …” 🙂

    Funny thing is, Volume Two of my SF series is already scheduled to have an armed defensive presence onboard LEO habitats …. but in my notes I had been shying away from the term “space marine” because I was afraid the readers might find it a bit hackneyed …

  5. I forsee a vast army of Spican Space marines armed with 40,000 warhammers attacking an anonymous office building somewhere in Nottingham…

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