I read in the Times of India yesterday that a chap named Leo Stoller has been suing people right and left for using the word ‘stealth’, because, apparently, he owns it. He has the trademark, and (at least in the USA) no company or individual except Leo can use it without his permission. However, he has been lenient enough to let some people offer him thousands of dollars for permission.

I was interested in this concept, and so I went on the net and did some research. My curiosity wasn’t satisfied, and I still don’t know a few things. For example, am I permitted to use it here in India? (Seemingly yes.) How did ToI use it? (In the same way as I did.) In what context can I use it? (Dunno.) I didn’t get answers to all those questions, but I actually found out something even weirder.

I found out that Marvel Comics and DC Comics jointly own the trademark for the word ‘superhero’! Do you know what that means? No comic other than those two can use the word. One company actually had to change the name of a comic from Super Hero Happy Hour to Hero Happy Hour, a fact which indicates a very real kind of oppression. Again, I have some questions. Can I use it inside a comic? Can I use it in a novel (as I intend to)? Could someone tell me?

The truth is that this might cause problems. I know that most people with such trademarks exercise their rights leniently, and we don’t see lawyers kicking down the doors of respectable geeks (if that’s not an oxymoron) and demanding they obliterate a particular word from their website. But we have to take into account the possibility that this trend might go too far. The concept of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer has been trademarked, as the writer of this novel found out, and it might not be long before Santa Claus himself is trademarked – after all, even now, Finland claims that it owns Santa (and it’s having a rather amusing battle over him with Norway).

The trademark rules for fictional characters are, thankfully, clear – you can mention them, but you cannot use them as characters. So I can write ‘Batman’ here as many times as I want, but I can’t write a story with him in it without permission. (We will ignore the phenomenon of fan-fiction, because that is something very different, however related – perhaps another post on that later.) I wonder what Larry Niven did when he wrote his hilarious ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’, which is a faux non-fiction piece where we analyze the methods by which Superman may possibly have a child. It was hugely irreverent, and I wonder how Niven got permission, if he actually did.

Anyway, this might, as I said, go too far. There might come a day when people are granted the right to trademark even commoner words (although one might argue that ‘superhero’ itself is not that rare). Maybe we’ll be able to trademark retrospectively as well, so that I could trademark the words ‘Jabberwock’ and ‘Jabberwocky’ and sue the buttocks off this guy and a million publishers. I could also sue Terry Gilliam for this movie, and as we sit in court together, I’ll certainly take the opportunity to tell him what an idol he is for me.

While that is a rather attractive possibility, I still hope that we do not have to face such absurdities, and everyone will be able to steal liberally from other people, without having to do so with any kind of stealth.