In a bit of irony, one of the first things I did this morning was explain the “fair use” element of US copyright law to an author friend of mine. The same explanation got forwarded to another author friend who wanted more information on the same subject. That will probably get put into a future blog post as well.

For now, though, the irony: in the same day, we’ve had a sudden trend in people posting about “space marines.” It’s trending on Twitter, splashed on Facebook, and circled on Google Plus. But what’s going on?

If you want the long explanation, just plug your search terms and have at it. You’ll find half a dozen on the first page of your results. The short version is that Games Workshop (The gaming company responsible for Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000) has managed to get everyone talking yet again about their bullying tactics. Specifically, they want to lay claim to the concept of “space marine.”

No, seriously.

It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? But they’re really trying to do it, and they’ve been trying to do it for some time. Today’s just the day it went viral. (Okay, it might have gone viral yesterday. I just didn’t notice.) People have been decrying Games Workshop’s unfairness, short-sightedness, bullying tactics, and especially their hypocrisy. For example, Howard Tayler wrote on Google Plus:

“Eldar” didn’t mean “ancient elf” until Tolkien said it did. You drank that right up. Bob Olsen and E.E. Smith both used the term “Space Marines” back in the 1930s. Suck on that, too.

I encourage you to click over and read the rest. It’s short, but Howard’s got some nice imagery going there.

It’s not just their hypocrisy, though, that has me writing this post. It’s not because I think they’re unfair (though they are), or that they’re bullies (that too), or that they’re alienating the same people they depend on for sales (certainly don’t need elf-eyes to see that one, Legolas). No, what I want to talk about is how this just violates common sense.

I said at the start that I’ll eventually make a dedicated post about “fair use” and what it means for authors, but here’s the relevant part. You can’t copyright or trademark something that doesn’t specifically refer to your product. Trademarks have even been stripped from brand names because they were so successful that they became part of everyday speech. (Sounds weird? Think about it the next time you blow your nose with some klenex, wash some aspirin down with some water out of your thermos, or ride an escalator while playing with your yo-yo.)

In this case, we have the opposite: a generic term that is being appropriated by a company which has no right to claim it. What is a “marine”? (Or, for the US, a Marine, capital-M.) Marines are shipboard troops. What are marines on a spaceship? You guessed it! “Space marines.”

Not only can Games Workshop not claim to be the originator of this idea, it’s patently ridiculous to do so. I don’t see Paramount attempting to trademark the idea of “security teams” or “away parties” or even “warp drive,” even though these are all parts of Star Trek; they didn’t even attempt it with inertial compensators, and that’s one they could actually have tried to hold on to.

But as I said, it’s not a case of knowing where you get your ideas from or being aware of your public appearance as you try to hold on to every aspect of your darlings. It’s about knowing what is and is not unique. As authors, you can learn from Games Workshop’s mistakes. Know what is and is not generic. If you find yourself thinking at any point “I hope no one thinks I ripped this off of X,” then changes are you’re ripping off of X. If, however, you’re building off of stuff you know is public domain (like, say, marines on a spaceship), then have at it.