This really should happen more frequently than it does. You will hopefully recall the ongoing drama between Chooseco, the company behind the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books we all remember from the 80s and 90s, and Netflix, producer of the hit series Black Mirror and its recent iteration entitled Bandersnatch. To catch you up, Bandersnatch was an interactive streaming show that billed itself as a “choose your own adventure” show, allowing the viewer to influence the progression of the story via choice. Chooseco sued Netflix over this production, claiming trademark infringement. Chiefly at issue is the appearance of a book mockup in the series, trade dress and marketing surrounding the show, and the fact that a character in the show refers to his own video game creation as a “choose your own adventure” game.
Separately, wielding this trademark, Chooseco inked a lucrative deal with Amazon to develop CYOA stories for the Amazon Alexa (keep this in mind for later). Chooseco also separately went after other indie game developers for using the phrase in their own marketing (again, important for later). And while Netflix sought to have the case tossed on grounds that its use of the phrase and trade dress was protected by the First Amendment, and was not protectable for Chooseco, and that there was no chance of customer confusion. The court, somewhat predictably, decided that those were arguments better made at trial.
And so here we are, with Netflix setting forth those same affirmative defenses… but with one notable addition.
Netflix is asking for the cancellation of Chooseco’s ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ trademark, as the dispute between the two companies over a “Black Mirror” episode rumbles on.
Netflix, in a new filing at the US District Court for the District of Vermont on Tuesday, February 25, argued that not only has the term “choose your own adventure” become generic (and available under principles of fair usage), but also that characters and storylines from its 2018 interactive episode “Bandersnatch” differs from other interactive productions.
Yup. In addition to the affirmative defenses laid out in its motion for dismissal, Netflix is now asking that Chooseco’s trademark be cancelled entirely. This is going to have a ripple effect across all of the other actions Chooseco has taken as set forth above. Those indie game threats? Those go away if Chooseco doesn’t have a trademark to wield. Future lucrative deals such as that struck with Amazon? Nope, those are gone, too, potentially. By picking this wholly unnecessary fight, Chooseco has potentially given Netflix the ability to yank away the one poker chip it had left to play.
From the filing:
The alleged “Choose Your Own Adventure” marks that are the subject of Registration Nos. 2,913,403; 4,682,357; 5,651,588; 2,807,473; and 3,234,147 lack distinctiveness, are generic, and therefore are unprotectable. As detailed herein, the phrase “Choose Your Own Adventure” no longer denotes a single source or origin. Instead, it is a common phrase used by the general public to refer (a) to any situation that requires making a series of unguided choices, or that provides an opportunity to go back and re-make a series of choices that turned out badly, or (b) to any interactive fictional work that employs a “branching” narrative style, regardless of the source or origin of the work.
As used in the context of fictional works, the phrase “Choose Your Own Adventure” encompasses the entire genre of interactive-narrative fiction, a genus of media of which Chooseco’s book series is just one species.
Anyone really want to argue that the above isn’t true? It sure seems to be. I have long known what a CYOA book was. I, until covering this story, had zero idea that there was a single company with a registered trademark behind those books. Because, really, there isn’t. CYOA is essentially a genre. And somewhat descriptive. And not particularly identifying as to a source of a product.
There are legions of interactive novels, for instance, that are self-described as CYOA. And, yet, here we are in 2020, the year of our lord, first seeing legal action by Chooseco over it? Come on.
Again, I wish we saw this more often. Trademark bullies looking for a payday should more often have to at least face the risk of losing their trademarks entirely. While there is no guarantee that this will work in Netflix’s favor at trial, at least this threat would deter more bullying in general.
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