Who Owns Your Name?

Here we go again! Eager to stake a claim to any handy property that might be remotely commercial, the attorneys of the Lord of the Rings film companies have sent stern letters to the Shiremail.com website. The word "shire" may be a millennium old, but apparently anyone using it today, even as part of a compound name, is seen as cashing in on what m'learned friends call valuable goodwill generated by Tolkien's works. What next – a savage legal blitz on the websites owned by British county authorities? I live in Berkshire but may soon have to call it something else.

We have been here before. Years ago, the on-line sf media company Fandom.com decided they owned the word "fandom", and never mind that the Oxford English Dictionary dates it from 1903. Fandom.com even claimed to have trademarked the name, not normally allowed for dictionary words in common use. (Discworld(R) is a somewhat different case.) Legal threats were issued to innocuous websites like Fandom.tv. Eventually, Fandom.com proved to have been telling porkies about registering that trademark. They went bust, accompanied by the SF fan community's sympathetic chorus of "Ha ha ha ha ha!"

Then there are the cybersquatters who register well-known names as web domains. Effectively, they are kidnapping identities and holding them to ransom. For authors, the main literary culprit was a Cambridge University lecturer who bagged domains named for Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes and many others, and had the cheek to ask for 3% of his victims' gross sales in exchange for releasing their names. No wonder Harlan Ellison(R) has taken the precaution of trademarking his own name.

That particular cybersquatter was defeated in court by Winterson, thanks to arbitration by the World Intellectual Property Organisation. But other kinds of naughtiness flourish. Not long ago, Penguin trampled all over the identity of an unfortunate British woman whose website is katie.com, by using that domain name as the title of a book about horrific sexual experiences, whose author's actual site is katiet.com. For the sake of one letter's worth of increased snappiness, the publishers inflicted masses of unwanted and unpleasant traffic on an innocent bystander. When Penguin's new warehouse and ordering system melted down in 2004, making it nigh impossible to buy their John Wyndham titles in the year after his centenary, certain persons surely responded: "Ha ha ha ha ha!"

What if two people have equal claim to a name? Traditionally this is settled in gentlemanly fashion. Scots SF writer Stuart Gordon was really called Richard Gordon, but used a pen-name to avoid confusion with the famous author of Doctor in the House. Another UK author, Christopher Evans, nearly launched his career as C.D. Evans owing to the existence of pop-science guru Dr Christopher Evans – who however died in 1979. "C.D. Evans" appeared on the copyright page of the Other Chris Evans's first novel in 1980, but his full name was restored on the jacket.

Christopher Priest was amazed when DC comics writer Jim Owsley decided a decade ago to change his name to Christopher Priest. "Our" Priest thought it "a bit bleeding irritating to have my name pinched by another writer," and made an alternative proposal to DC: "If Jim must use a pseudonym, why doesn't he pick a really silly one, like, say, 'Harlan Ellison'?" (There is a certain lingering coolness between Priest and Ellison, as described in my first SFX column in 1995.)

Neverthless, the US comics writer is "Christopher Priest" to this day, and has even extended an olive branch of peace by setting up www.christopherpriest.com as a gateway to both their websites. When I looked there, the Priest I know was described as a "Birtish author". Well, he has written for the BBC ...

Another, nastier Priestly surprise came in Argosy magazine for May/June 2004, whose story "Cruelty the Human Heart" by O'Neil De Noux begins like this:

"In my first fifty years of life, I've only hated one person. Truly hated. Christopher Priest, white male, born November 22, 1963. That's right, he was born the day John F. Kennedy was killed. No, the president's soul wasn't recycled into Chris Priest, no f*ckin' way."

Actually that's not the birthday of either the Original Christopher Priest or the US Plastic Imitation Christopher Priest. But the hated one in the story gets a right working-over. He's shown as shooting songbirds for fun, torturing cats, bullying his wife, being identified as a serial killer, and ultimately suffering rough, vigilante justice. Did this De Noux have some sinister axe to grind?

Curiosity led me to Google, which unearthed a De Noux article about himself that expressed gratitude to two "mentors ... who literally taught me how to write a short story." One is ... Harlan Ellison, whose catchphrase might almost be: "Who will rid me of this turbulent Priest?" Sheer coincidence? Is the Pope a Scientologist?

Well, apparently it was sheer coincidence. De Noux had never heard of either Christopher Priest, and apologised when the British one asked what was up. Move along, everybody. There's nothing to see here.

Your columnist notes grumpily that although he's bagged davidlangford.co.uk, a cybersquatter holds davidlangford.com ...