The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Ars Technica editor Joe Mullin posted Friday about a ridiculous trademark demand letter from IMAX:
Last week, Ars published a story about the newest version of SteamVR, a virtual reality system made by Valve Software. The piece includes interviews with game designers praising the new system as well as writer Sam Machkovech's own experience using SteamVR at Valve's office in Bellevue, Washington.
For VR enthusiasts, it was all good news—but the article got some surprising pushback.
On June 16, Ars Technica was contacted by IMAX Corporation. The company said our story required a retraction because it included a brief reference to IMAX—included without IMAX's permission. "Any unauthorized use of our trademark is expressly forbidden," IMAX's Deputy General Counsel G. Mary Ruby wrote in a letter (PDF).
The letter is surprising in several ways. First of all, the article isn't about IMAX. The single reference to IMAX in the story is a quote from Alex Schwartz, a game designer interviewed by Machkovech. Schwartz predicted that SteamVR could take off with consumers despite the fact that the room-sized system takes up a lot of space. "It's like saying, 'I have an IMAX theater in my house,'" he told Machkovech. "It's so much better that we can get away with a cumbersome setup."
In other words—Schwartz thinks SteamVR is awesome, and to express its awesomeness, he compared it to IMAX, another thing he clearly thinks is awesome. His quote was made part of the story's headline.
Ars correctly pointed out that such references to trademarks are not infringement. (See the Holy trademark non-infringement, Batman! post for another interesting example of this.) And within hours, IMAX apologized:
This is an IMAX-sized mea culpa to you, your team at Ars Technica, and your readers.
We are very passionate about our brand and sometimes we can be overzealous in trying to protect it. Unfortunately in this situation we acted too quickly without truly understanding the reference to our brand.
Again—we apologize for how this was handled and we will try to be better at taking compliments moving forward!
Nice. To be sure, it would have been nicer still if IMAX had never sent the original demand letter—but people make mistakes, and promptly apologizing when mistakes are made is an important corporate skill.