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The real Space Force may be going down in flames against the fictional Space Force: According to the Hollywood Reporter, the newly founded military branch appears to be losing a trademark battle with the Netflix comedy show of the same name.
Netflix “has outmaneuvered the U.S. government to secure trademark rights to ‘Space Force’ in Europe, Australia, Mexico and elsewhere,” according to the Reporter, while the Air Force—under which the Space Force is organized—simply has a pending application stateside. This mostly has ramifications for merch. Consumers won’t have trouble discerning between the military branch and Space Force when it comes to which one stars Steve Carrell, but they might not be able who is selling a line of Space Force shirts.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office relies on a “first-to-use” system when assigning rights, and Netflix has been submitting trademark applications for the Space Force across the globe since the start of 2019. On the other hand, the Air Force filed a trademark application on the basis of intent to use in March 2019, per Law & Crime, and the Space Force didn’t become an actual organization until December 2019. If it comes down to a legal battle, that means Netflix may be able to easily demonstrate it was actually using the Space Force branding first. (Even if Netflix lost the case, it would have a First Amendment right to continue selling Space Force merch on the grounds of satire and parody.)
According to Law & Crime, this wouldn’t be an unprecedented legal fight. Since 2007, when a Defense Department directive forming a new copyright and trademark went into effect, the U.S. Marine Corps used its trademark to order sites like Zazzle, CafePress, and Etsy to either stop selling merchandise with USMC branding or only under certain rules. Foreign Policy wrote in 2013 that the increased focus on branding had allowed service branches to start rolling in royalties or even launch clothing lines in partnership with retailers.
“At this time, we are not aware of any trademark conflicts with the fictional program Space Force produced by Netflix,” an Air Force spokesperson told the Hollywood Reporter. “We wish Netflix and the show’s producers the best in their creative depiction of our nation’s newest branch of the military.”
The dispute may ultimately come to nothing, as Space Force has not exactly been a winner for Netflix so far.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, just 40 percent of 82 critics gave its first season positive reviews (and even many of those positive reviews were not great). Blurbs include “shockingly unfunny,” “so strange and ill-conceived and ill-timed that not even Carell’s avuncular bonhomie can save it,” “decidedly dull, to the point that humor has been transported elsewhere,” and “pathetically offering up zingers on office rivalries, nepotism, and weird co-workers.”