Choose your own adventure

You're defending Netflix in a trademark lawsuit. Do you: (a) try to settle the whole thing quickly? Or (b) go for the nuclear option? Also: 7 other things worth a click.

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If you’re between say, 30 and 50, then chances are good that when you were a kid, you read some of Edward Packard’s books.

If you don’t recognize his name, how about the series? "Choose Your Own Adventure," where the reader assumes the role of the protagonist, makes decisions, and affects the ending.

It's funny. My brothers and I read tons of these books when we were kids. Then, I completely forgot about them until two years ago, when Netflix started streaming an interactive show called "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch."

This was basically a choose-your-own-adventure style movie, about a programmer in the 1980s trying to create a video game that was in turn based on a choose-your-own adventure book.

The viewer controlled the plot points.

I found the whole thing entertaining. I also found it interesting that the words "choose-your-own-adventure" seemed like they were always in lower case letters.

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that Netflix and the creators of the Choose Your Own Adventure books are now in a dispute over whether "choose your own adventure" is still a valid trademark.

This history is complicated, so let’s try to get through it quickly:

  • Packard was a lawyer, and he came up with the idea for the books in the late 1960s, after he asked his young kids to finish the plots of their bedtime stories. He wrote the first book on the train, commuting each day from Connecticut to Manhattan.

  • Big publishers weren’t interested, but eventually a small publishing company in Vermont called Crossroads Press picked it up.

  • Packard did his second and third books in the series with a bigger publishing company called Lippincott. They came up with the Choose Your Own Adventure name—but they also failed to trademark it.

  • Not long after, Bantam Books took over the series. They used the un-trademarked name, commissioned dozens of books from both Packard and the owner of Crossroads Press (Ray Montgomery), and sold 250 million copies in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • After Bantam was acquired by Random House, the books went out of print—and Random House failed to renew the trademark (as Packard later told the story).

  • So, Montgomery started yet another new company called Chooseco, and registered or claimed the supposedly dead trademark for Choose Your Own Adventure.

(After learning all this, I searched the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website Wednesday. Sure enough, Chooseco is all over the database the section on “Choose Your Own Adventure.”)

In 2010, Packard got back in the game, launching a series of apps based on the series and books he’d written—but called them the “U-Venture” series, since Choose Your Own Adventure was now owned by somebody else.

Still with me? After Bandersnatch came out, Chooseco sued Netflix for infringement.

The latest development is that this week is that Netflix argued that the trademarks aren’t valid anymore, because the phrase "choose your own adventure" has become generic.

(So, you could use the phrase in the subject line of an email newsletter going to thousands of people, for example.)

By the way, Montgomery died in 2014. He'd owned Crossroads Press with his first wife, and launched Chooseco, if I'm reading this correctly, with his second wife.

And with that, I think, we’re all caught up (but perhaps, also lost).

Ironic, right? The ownership of this brand, which is based on choosing plot points, has now had so many twists and turns that it’s hard to keep it straight.

So let’s jump ahead to the moral of the story.

If you’re a creator and you’re trying to decide if it’s worth the effort to protect your intellectual property rights aggressively, choose “yes.”

It will probably lead to fewer adventures down the road.

7 other things worth a click

  1. Bunk beds on a plane, an Air New Zealand proposal. (Running With Miles)

  2. Business plan: Buy big media brand, lay off entire staff, profit(?). (New York Post)

  3. Also today in media: I learned from a fellow Substack writer that Costco has the 4th biggest magazine in America. (Actually her article sets it up as a mystery, and I’m giving away the ending, sorry.) DeezLinks

  4. Vietnam can't sell dragonfruit to China because of the coronavirus. Here's what some bakers came up with instead. (Business Insider)

  5. Pope to Catholics: For Lent, give up trolling. (Reuters)

  6. Latest mass shooting: Six victims killed plus the gunman at Molson Coors in Milwaukee. (Journal Sentinel)

  7. The news on the coronavirus is coming so quickly now that I often don’t know how to address it in this newsletter. But the fact that there are now more confirmed cases outside China than in China seems like an unwanted milestone. (Associated Press)

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