Let’s Play with Trademarks, Sony!

If you hadn’t already heard, Sony filed a trademark application for the phrase “Let’s Play,” and the Internet was not happy about it. I had the opportunity to give my $0.02 on the subject to Gamasutra recently, and now that the whole thing is more or less dead in the water, I thought I’d go ahead and put the rest of my thoughts down and help clear things up for anyone who might still be wondering about the whole trademark situation.

What a Trademark Is, and What it Isn’t

Whenever some vague trademark filing makes headlines, invariably there will be a number of angry people who incredulously wave their pitchforks at the notion that an evil corporation would have the audacity to try to claim ownership over a common English word or phrase. In these situations, I usually advise restraint, as much of the hostility against such filings is often due to a misunderstanding of what trademark law is meant to accomplish.

Contrary to what some people may think (including some trademark holders), getting a trademark on a word, phrase, or logo doesn’t mean you “own” that word, phrase, or logo; rather, it just means that you have the exclusive right to use that mark “in commerce” in connection with the specific type of goods or services you specified when you applied for the trademark.

seagulls-mine

How trademarks are seen by many people.

Unlike a copyright (which gives an author exclusive rights over their creative work) or a patent (which gives an inventor exclusive rights over their invention), a trademark is meant to protect the general public from confusion as to the source of a good or service by giving the trademark holder the exclusive right to use the mark “in commerce” in connection with a particular type of good/service. Continue reading

Kickstart Wars, Episode I: A New Infringement

By now you’ve likely heard about a Kickstarter campaign started by an impossibly optimistic 20 year old named Devin for an open world RPG set in the Star Wars universe. The ambitious Kickstarter campaign went viral almost immediately, and while that’s normally a great thing for the average crowdfunding campaign, in this case it probably just means that the whole thing will end up within range of the Disney/Lucasfilm legal department superweapon that much sooner, and it’ll take more than Devin’s adorable naivete (or trolling, maybe?) to stop it.

starwarspalphwiggum

So, if nothing else ends up coming from this particular campaign, it does at least give me the opportunity to consider some commonly asked legal questions. Continue reading

Intellectual Property 101: A (Very) Brief Overview

Some people reading this post might already be familiar with all of this, but recently I’ve been getting enough questions about the basics of intellectual property law that I thought writing up a brief primer would be helpful to some of the game devs, composers, artists, and everyone else out there.

Mother_Brain_(Metroid_NES)

I’m not entirely sure why this image of Mother Brain came to mind when thinking about intellectual property, but here it is.

What Is Intellectual Property?

When people use the word “property,” the image that comes to mind is usually something tangible, like potatoes or iPads. The law recognizes three broad categories of property: personal property, real property, and intellectual property.

  • Personal property is stuff that is tangible and “moveable,” like aforementioned potatoes or iPads.
  • Real property is tangible but not moveable, like land and buildings.
  • Intellectual property is neither tangible nor moveable, like copyrights and trademarks.

People are generally pretty accustomed to dealing with the first two – it’s that third category that tends to get people into trouble nowadays, so here’s a quick overview of the four general types of intellectual property.

  • Copyrights protect creative works fixed to a tangible medium, like song recordings, literature, or paintings.
  • Trademarks protect words, symbols, or designs that identify a source of goods.
  • Patents protect useful, functional inventions.
  • Trade secrets are devices or techniques that a company uses to manufacture its goods that aren’t generally known or ascertainable.

Continue reading