Friday, May 12, 2017

Misconceptions about trademarks

The company CD Projekt RED, which is developing the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077, caused a bit of a mini-controversy when it was announced that they were seeking to trademark the word "cyberpunk".

People freaked out, mostly because they don't understand how trademarks work.

Sure, even within the context and scope of trademarks it would indeed be questionable to grant a trademark to that particular word because it could ostensibly lead to abuse, given that it's such a generic name of a science fiction genre that's popular in video games.

However, that's not the reason why most people freaked out. Most people did so because they have the misconception that if somebody trademarks eg. a word, that means that nobody can use that word anywhere, in any context, without paying royalties. Essentially, the word becomes banned in all contexts.

But that's not how trademarks work!

Trademarks are always tied to a very specific context. It protects the trademarked name, word, or other such concept, when used in a very specific situation, not in all possible situations.

For example, Microsoft owns a trademark on the word "Windows". However, it pertains only to that word being used in the name of a computer operating system. It does not pertain to any other use of the word in any other context. For example, a manufacturer of physical house windows can perfectly well have that word in their name, or in some product of theirs, without infringing Microsoft's trademark. Or a window cleaning product could have that word in its name without problems. That's because the context is entirely different, and trademarks protect the use of words only in particular contexts.

(The basic idea is, of course, that nobody would get confused by a manufacturer company selling house windows, with the word "Windows" somewhere in their name, for Microsoft's operating system. The contexts are completely different, and thus there can be no confusion.)

It is, in fact, perfectly possible for two companies to trademark the exact same word, name or sentence, as long as they pertain to completely different contexts.

Thus, if CD Projekt RED had trademarked the word "cyberpunk", it would have only protected the use of that word in the names of video games. The use of the word would have been completely ok in any other context.

(But, to be fair, and as already said, even in this particular context that trademark is arguably way too broad, given that it's the name of an entire genre of fiction, and thus it's probably better that they didn't trademark it, assuming they would have even gotten the trademark.)

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