Final Update: I’ve included what seem to be Stuart Robertson’s final statements on the OSR trademark matter. I am including them because they address my specific concern about the broadness of Robertson’s trademark claim. I’m not sure to what degree rehashing this controversy will be valuable, so in a few days, I will delete the links that I personally sent out. I will, however, be leaving this blog post up for posterity.
In 2011, Stuart Robertson created a now popular logo for the OSR based off of the TSR logo. This logo has been printed on many OSR adventure modules and is popular on OSR blogs, becoming the most recognizable graphic symbol of the broad movement. On November 15, 2018, Stuart Robertson stated on his G+ page that he will no longer allow individuals who engage in hate speech or harassing behaviors to use the logo.
This action is well within Mr. Robertson’s legal right. The logo was released with certain rights attached to the author, there is little dispute over this. Further, it’s entirely reasonable and ethical for him to restrict usage based on the association of the logo with hate speech or harassment. After all, this logo is his personal creation and he has certain legal rights over how it is used. Also, using these rights to isolate hateful elements in the OSR community is something that I personally support.
However, I believe that Stuart Robertson is attempting to imply that he has rights not just to the logo that he created, but to the term OSR itself. This is a very different matter, with very different implications. Below is a series of statements by Mr. Robertson which I believe demonstrate that he is implying ownership over the acronym OSR itself. I won’t be including statements by people other than Mr. Robertson since unless they are his spokespeople or have power of attorney, their opinions are irrelevant to his legal position. I will, however, include some direct questions to Mr. Robertson for context, including my own. I will also include some remarks to the right of the screenshot quotes, showing my interpretation of the discussion. For more information, I recommend that people view the original G+ thread, linked above.
Let me also emphasize, should Mr. Robertson clearly state in plain english that he isn’t asserting a trademark over the acronym OSR, then my criticisms become instantly invalid. All highlighting in the following screenshots is my own for emphasis.
I have no issue with Mr. Robertson asserting his rights over the logo that he created. However, he implies that he has the rights to the OSR acronym itself and, by extension, legal power over who may claim to be part of the OSR community. If he admitted that he doesn’t have rights over the acronym, then any future attempts at gatekeeping would be thwarted. As is, he reserves for himself the right to copyright troll and to intimidate through the threat of frivolous lawsuits. I believe he intends to use DMCA flags, which he knows have no legal basis, and that refusing to answer this question is a strategy to protect himself from being counter-sued for malicious use of trademark law.
The essence of contract is agreement
Not coercion or obedience
And agreement is sacred
What can one say?
I will not obey
-Utah Phillips, I Will Not Obey
So why are Mr. Robertson’s actions immoral and dangerous? Let’s begin with the definition of copyright, the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same. Both copyright and trademark indicate ownership over a product or creation. Under a capitalist system, ownership is defined as the ability to restrict use or access to a given object. In this way, ownership allows the owner power over other’s use. This is the essential critique of gatekeeping, it consists of a single individual asserting illegitimate ownership over a community for the purposes of exclusion. I argue that by broadening his trademark claim from a logo to the OSR acronym itself, Mr. Robertson is asserting ownership over the very name of the community and thus the community itself. This is the very definition of gatekeeping.
Mr. Robertson’s threat is economic in style. His threat is to use his economic and legal power to financially ruin members of the community based on a whim, precisely targeting those who lack the resources to afford a legal defense. One’s right to claim membership in the community is then a function of wealth. Mr. Robertson is reinforcing and legitimizing the mechanisms of oppressive and immoral hierarchies within capitalism where legal safety and security in one’s artistic expression must be bought on the market. Also, the logo at the top of this article is one which I found on odd74 which predates Mr. Robertson’s by a year. I welcome any attempts by Mr. Robertson to claim copyright over this logo.
Artistic freedom, inclusivity, and safety cannot coexist with the existence of a man claiming legal right over inclusion in the community, regardless of their personal morals. It is we who played the games, made the forums, wrote the modules, endless retro-clones made. Now we’re told we cannot own the name. The OSR existed before Stuart Robertson made his logo. It will continue to exist. Accepting the morality of Robertson’s implied claim is to imply he has a moral right to own the OSR and decide who is a member of it. I didn’t vote on him. I don’t think anyone else did. Every player, DM, writer and commentator in the OSR is a member and owner of the community. I refuse to consent or submit to the will of an unelected and unaccountable tyrant claiming control over a participatory creative community. Put another way, with the threat of legal action against people claiming to be part of the community by Stuart Robertson, creative freedom and participation exist only insofar as he sees fit.
I would hope that Mr. Robertson will put these fears to rest with an unambiguous statement, something along the lines of “I, Stuart Robertson, believe that my trademark extends only to the logo that I created in 2011 and not to the acronym, OSR, itself.” His refusal to make such a statement only creates a climate of fear and uncertainty by granting himself vague legal powers.
Update: Here are some further statements by Stuart Robertson which relate to the broadness of his trademark and how he intends to pursue his copyright claims.