Tim Lince

There has been an outcry over trademark applications for the term CYBERPUNK filed by video game developer CD Projekt Red. While much of the negative sentiment has been put to rest after the company released an open letter expanding on the marks, some concern remains – including from Bruce Bethke, who originally coined the term ‘cyberpunk’ in 1980.

The furore began last week following the discovery of an EU trademark application for the term CYBERPUNK, the term used for a popular subgenre of science fiction (exemplified by classic works of fiction including Blade Runner, Ghost In The Shell and Neuromancer). The trademark registrant was CD Projekt Red, developer of the popular Witcher series of video games and an upcoming title in development called Cyberpunk 2077 (based on 1980s role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020, created by R. Talsorian Games). The application (which proceeded to registration earlier this month) was in two classes related to video games, while a US trademark (registered in 2011) has been secured in classes related to video games. Another US mark (which was applied for in 2012 but is not yet registered) is for more varied goods and services, including clothing and books. Outrage soon followed on social media, with claims that the marks could lead to a restriction on the entire subgenre of cyberpunk.

A comment emerged that was attributed to Bruce Bethke, the author who originally coined the term ‘cyberpunk’ in in a popular short story written in 1980. He claimed that entities often try and trademark the term but they “never hold up” due to “the enormous amount of well-documented prior art”. Other commentators directed their disappointment at CD Projekt Red, with one asking: “Would it be better if they went with ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ specifically? This seems like overreach.” Another compared the mark to previous trademark applications that received public backlashes: “This is exactly the same as oppressive trademarks such as [King.com filing for] Saga or what the Fine Bros tried to do with React, however I can guarantee that despite how [bad] this is, there will be people ... who will defend this. In their eyes CD Projekt Red can do no wrong. This trademark will probably get rejected but it's still a scumbag thing to attempt to get.”

There were indeed voices that defended the move, arguing that such a move was normal procedure for a company creating a new franchise. “Trademarking the name of a game is standard practice and generally just means that others can't use that name for their products,” observed one commentator. “Just like there won't ever be a ‘Battlefield: Kitchen Cleanup’ because Battlefield is a trademark owned by EA. So if you wanted ‘Cyberpunk: Futuristic Kitchen Cleanup’ that won't be possible after CD Projekt Red gets the trademark.”

For its part, CD Projekt Red felt the need to respond to the outcry and posted an open letter explaining the motivation behind the application. In it, the company outlined what the trademark means in a practical sense and addressed the concern that it may prohibit anyone from creating cyberpunk-themed video games. “We want to protect our hard work and we don’t plan on using the trademark offensively – it’s a self-defense measure only,” the letter states, saying the registration helps protect the company “from unlawful actions of unfair competitors”.

Following this move, the backlash mostly subsided. One commentator was ecstatic at the response, saying “man, this is how you run a company”, while another added that the developer was “classy as ever – these guys are setting the bar for what developers should be, [with] open, honest communication and true AAA titles”.

But at least one person remains sceptical about the mark. Talking to World Trademark Review, cyberpunk legend Bethke confirmed that the initial comments were accurately attributed to him and, while noting “I'm not a trademark lawyer”, he expressed concern over cyberpunk-related trademarks that are too wide-ranging: “My understanding of American trademark law, as I told the fellow who apparently clipped the [original] quote from what I thought was a private exchange of messages on Facebook, is that trademark depends on context,” he explained. “[So] while you can trademark a logotype or a unique variation – eg, as I recall, R. Talsorian Games' trademark was specifically for a role-playing game named ‘Cyberpunk 2020’ – you can't just trademark a word for all purposes everywhere. Hence when some company back in the 1980s tried to claim a trademark on the word ‘cyberpunk’ because they were publishing a Cyberpunk comic book, well, tough – it didn't hold up.” He further voiced frustration at being unable to address the issues he has with the marks in question: “I do rather wish someone from CD Projekt Red would contact me, though, to clarify a few of my concerns.”

However, at the same time he expressed exasperation that the responsibility for guarding the 'cyberpunk' term has apparently fallen on his shoulders, adding: “Most of all, I wish people all over the internet would pay a tiny percentage of their attention to what I'm doing now [referencing the digital magazine Stupefying Stories Showcase], as opposed to something I did 37 years ago.” To that end, he concluded: “I really wish that just once, someone would offer me an enormous f*cking pile of money to lay hands upon them and pronounce them the one true purveyor of cyberpunk’.”

For now, the storm seems to have passed for CD Projekt Red. In its canny response, it clarified concerns that social media users had and pledged not to be aggressive in its enforcement of the marks. But discontent still bubbles under the surface, and the developer must tread carefully. For other companies that face trademark-related PR issues in the future, the approach that CD Projekt Red took could be an example worth remembering.

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