Why You Should Care About #cockygate

Readers and non-romance authors may not have heard about the #cockygate situation. To start, here’s a summary:

A romance author filed for and was granted a trademark for the word “cocky” as part of a series title for romance novels. She then used this trademark to issue cease and desist orders to other authors with the word “cocky” in their book titles. Some of these authors complied rather than question or resist it. One went public. Chaos ensued. Amazon’s anti-trademark/copyright bot went wild pulling stuff down. A retired lawyer-turned-author decided to file a challenge to the trademark on his own dime. A collection of romance authors put together an anthology titled Cocktales: A Cocky Anthology (I may have the title wrong). The originating author sued both the anthology publicist, an author who resisted the initial C&D, and the retired lawyer, to stop all of them from doing their various things. The Romance Writers of America got involved, as did the Authors Guild.

Also, there’s an issue with the font she chose for part of her trademark, in that the EULA specifically excludes the right to use it for trademarks.

As of the time of this post’s writing, the originating author’s* lawsuit has been denied. The trademark appeal will go forward, and all books previously blocked or challenged are no longer being blocked or challenged.

To sum up that summary: an author did something stupid and bullied other authors, got called on it, doubled-down, and lost. We can expect the challenge to the trademark to succeed.

On the surface, this seems really uninteresting as anything other than typical romance community drama. Here’s why it actually matters.

First, I read the trademark application and didn’t understand it. Others have written a fair amount to translate it, and I’m basing my statements off those various interpretations.

So, a trademark for the word “cocky” in romance fiction was filed and granted. This has two very separate points.

  1. An author decided she needed a trademark for X.
  2. The PTO (Patents and Trademark Office) decided to grant it.

#1 is not weird. It’s something that happens. Authors may not copyright or trademark book titles, but we can get a trademark for a series title or our pen names. For example, I could trademark Maze Beset if I wanted to, but not Dragons In Pieces, Dragons In Chains, or Dragons In Flight.

If you’re not a romance reader, understand that for romance, “cocky” is about on par with “dragon” in fantasy or mythology. Getting a trademark for a single common word is, to be blunt, a jerk move. It’s declaring ownership over that word. which leads us to #2.

I have no idea why the PTO granted a trademark for the word “cocky,” and that worries me greatly. There’s been a lot of talk about the “Deep State” is if there’s some kind of shadowy, nefarious cancer in our federal institutions. My concern here is that this viewpoint has led to enough firings that the fine folks at the PTO are overworked. Are they just doing the minimum diligence and then rubber-stamping things? That could lead to more issues of this type in the future, when corporations have taken advantage of this lax atmosphere and start exerting their word or phrase ownership.

Let’s now discuss the next part, where the originating author sent cease and desist notices. Several indie authors, none of whom are big-names, received a legalesque-sounding notice and responded by changing their book titles as demanded. Like trademarking a single, common-use word, this is a jerk move. It speaks to the mindset that other authors are competition. Competition must be crushed for you to succeed.

Authors are not competition for each other.

Even when what we write is similar, authors are not competition for each other.

All of us are readers. We love finding new authors to read as much as you do. The more I read, the better a writer I become. There is no finite limit to the number of ways an idea can be interpreted. When I books I write are compared to books written by author X, you have an idea of what to expect. This helps you find stuff you like and avoid stuff you won’t like. That’s the goal! I want to read stuff similar to my stuff because that’s what I like!

On the flip side, my dragon stories are different from other authors’ dragon stories. Give twenty different authors a specific prompt like ‘Asian dragons meddling with mortal wedding traditions’, and you get twenty different stories. Some may be similar, but no two will be the same. This is why romance as a genre works–we all know each story will have a relationship in line with its subgenre, but each other puts a different spin on it. As Shakespeare pointed out several centuries ago, there’s nothing new under the sun. I can only be original in my implementation and voice, not ideas themselves.

(Side note: I now kind of want to do the Asian dragons meddling in mortal wedding traditions anthology. Damn you, flippant ideas!)

Next, the Amazon bot. When the originating author informed Amazon of her trademark, Amazon immediately pulled books. Because Amazon is not an entity that evaluates trademarks, it is a corporation that complies with them. In this case, Amazon is not a villain, it’s simply an agent doing what it’s supposed to do (though the fine folks there may be a little trigger-happy on this particular subject, but that’s not the point here today). In many ways, informing Amazon of trademark infringement is like calling the cops on someone holding a gun-like object. Regardless of what the person is holding, the cops will treat it like a gun until proven otherwise.

This particular point is important because anyone can be slapped in an infringement block at any time. Two weeks ago, I received one for the print version of Dragons In Flight. I have no idea why. It has since been lifted with no explanation. Did someone else try to publish a pirated version? Did someone else try to publish another book with the same title? Did some computer thing hiccup and barf out that book? We’ll all never know.

What matters is that there’s no benefit to trying to get other author’s books pulled. As readers, that kind of author behavior should fry your cheese. Wait. Fried cheese is delicious. It should fry your…erm…butt? It’s bad, and you shouldn’t encourage it. See above about not being competition. Getting books pulled can damage an author’s career enough that they can’t pay their bills. If an author can’t pay their bills, they stop writing books. Fewer books is bad. We want more. Fry them with cheese and eat them.

Imagine if your favorite author had to stop writing books because someone convinced Amazon to throw them into infringement prison. This means their books are no longer available for sale. Now recognize that whatever author it happens to, there are people who love that author’s work, and they feel exactly like that. Don’t do that to other people. It’s a jerk move, and human beings should be better than that.

For my final note, I’ll mention that some folks over on the SFWA boards noticed that a different romance author has filed for a trademark for “Quantum Series” for all fiction, not just romance. This is stupid, and if enforced will cause some serious problems in the science fiction community. One hopes it isn’t granted, because a few SF authors already have series with Quantum and Series in the series titles, but judging by #cockygate, it probably will be.

Keep an eye out for #quantumgate. Maybe we’ll all get lucky and the author won’t bother enforcing it against SF titles. Personally, I’d like to see the major publishing houses go to bat against overreach like that, but I hope she really just wanted to keep it to non-SF romance, where the word “quantum” is much more uncommon.

*You’ll notice I’m not naming this author. If you really want to know, look up #cockygate. Personally, I think she’s gotten enough publicity out of this whole thing already, and am uninterested in her specifically. This is more about the wider ramifications than that specific person.

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