What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;” Romeo & Juliet [Act II, Scene 2]
As tempting as it is to believe the Bard, this isn’t always true. Some names carry far more weight than others. And yet names are a very had thing to truly own.
For those using pseudonyms and role players or authors of fan fiction, who owns a name can be a thorny issue. It’s also an issue getting more attention in the virtual world where who you are is often nothing more than a name.
We would all like to think that our names are as unique and individual as we are. To some degree this is truer online than in the real world. Usernames generally have to be unique for each network or website they are associated with. Offline there are no such restrictions. A quick glance through the phone book of any small town, let alone a major city will reveal that many “real” people share the same name or portions of it. It’s not just personal names that are duplicated, either. Depending on where you are, business names including local flora, fauna, landmarks or cultural significance may be shared by numerous entities.
This might imply that a unique name like Cher or Sookie is more desirable than an sensible everyday name. To some extent this is true. It’s easier to identify dopplegangers when they use an unusual name (this appears to be how Facebook identified many role-players to ban). Unfortunately, being unique doesn’t really protect your name. Other people can, and will, use it.
The only way to protect a name is to register it as a trademark. Names, even character names appearing in protected works, cannot be copyrighted. It doesn’t matter how creative or distinct a name is, copyright law does not and will not protect them. Trademark laws, on the other hand might, at least to an extent.
As general counsel and an IP lawyer for consumer Internet companies, I recognize there’s a strong case for trademark infringement in using “Twitter” in the name of any product or company not affiliated with Twitter,” said Antone Johnson, Founding Principal of Bottom Line Law Group in San Francisco and Los Angeles (Santa Monica), CA. Former VP and head of worldwide legal affairs at eHarmony; one of the original in-house lawyers at MySpace, in answer to a question about the recent Twitter/UberSocial dispute. “That said, I think going after variants using the word “tweet” is overreaching. I would have had more sympathy for Twitter in this skirmish if they’d exercised a little more restraint in policing the Twitter TM; instead, the company comes across as rigid and bullying, in the same way Facebook has overreached by going after other sites with “book’ in the domain name.”
Variants aren’t the only issue when it comes to protecting a name. Here having a unique name is a distinct benefit. Common names as less likely to be trademarkable because they are frequently used.
There are other issues as well, besides those having to do with the name itself. Registering a trademark is not free. In fact, it costs several hundred, even thousands of dollars. Applicants may also need the assistance of a lawyer to complete and file the forms appropriately with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Some states may allow individuals to register trade or business names at a lower cost, however, such registration offers limited protection in the online world.
For these and other reasons trademarking a pseudonym is not a practical option for many authors, let alone role players. Yet without such legal and official proof that an individual has the right to use a name companies like Facebook will continue to be able to exclude access and service on a whim. Such exclusions also serve to legitimize the claims made by some in the literary and political arenas that “hiding” behind a pen name is somehow cowardly or dishonest. It is neither. In fact, the use of pseudonyms has a proud history that is even older than the United States.
As Michael Bryan noted on Halloween of last year:
“Pseudonymous writing is ethical as long as the purpose of the pseudonym is to prevent retaliation, interpersonal conflict, or financial harm, and is not to deceive readers….”
He was referring to political bloggers but it is just as true or perhaps more so for role-players. There is, sadly, a certain stigma based largely on misconceptions about what role-playing is and who does it. One could argue that until we stop hiding behind characters and pen names that stigma will continue to exist. At the same time, who really wants to be a waitress in a nowhere Southern town unless she’s telepathic, has a vampire as a neighbor, a shape shifter for a boss and faeries for relatives?