Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

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The WSFS Mark Protection Committee

In response to a comment on another post saying that "There isn't much information about [the Mark Protection Committee]" and asking for me to write about what it is and what it does, here is an example of my "copious spare time." (In reality, it's that this is a relatively easy request, which makes it something I can toss off quickly.)

History and Background

The World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) doesn't have much in the way of permanent organization. There's no WSFS, Inc., no Board of Directors, no Home Office. Worldcons act in their own name and exist for a few years at a time. The Worldcon Business Meeting is the legislature of WSFS and makes rules for site selection and the Hugo Awards, but WSFS doesn't have an executive branch, President, Chairman, or any way to accomplish anything on its own.

This leads to a problem: Who owns WSFS's intellectual property? Specifically, who owns the service marks (similar to trademarks) on "Worldcon," "Hugo Award," and so forth. WSFS saw the need to obtain protection for its marks in the 1980s, and had they not done so, anyone could set up their own "Worldcon" or "Hugo Awards." (Sometimes it seems like people are doing just that, but I'm getting ahead of the story.) But who would register and own the marks? Although individual Worldcons are generally run by corporate entities (usually non-profit corporations or their equivalents outside the USA), you couldn't have an individual Worldcon register the marks, because they only have the right to use those marks for a limited period of time covering their own Worldcon. And if you let any particular Worldcon-running non-profit own the marks, you've effectively made the WSFS Inc. by stealth.

Rise of the Standing Committee

Parallel to this desire to register the WSFS marks to protect them from unfair use, there was a campaign in the late 1970s/early 1980s to incorporate WSFS. WSFS Inc. would own the marks and have certain administrative duties. Worldcon Business Meetings during this period debated how this would be implemented, and there is actually a Worldcon continuing resolution that says, in effect, "We want to incorporate WSFS someday." As part of this, a structure for a WSFS Board of Directors was developed that would include members elected by the Business Meeting and members appointed by Worldcon committees. The Standing Committee of WSFS would then elect its officers, including a Chairman.

Incorporation of WSFS stalled out in the early 1980s, but the structure of the WSFS BofD was actually incorporated into the WSFS Constitution under the name "Standing Committee," and this committee was then charged with registering the service marks of WSFS in the name of WSFS, an unincorporated literary society. (Unincorporated societies can own things.) WSFS did register the marks in the USA, and continues to assert ownership of them in the name of the World Science Fiction Society to this day.

Fall of the Standing Committee, Sort Of

Business Meetings started showing a tendency to refer more and more things to the Standing Committee, including things other than service mark registrations. A significant number of regular participants in WSFS politics became concerned that this was yet another attempt at creating WSFS Inc. by stealth. For reasons that have roots back into the 1950s, "WSFS Inc." has been anathema to many people active in Worldcon affairs, and people can get really riled up over it. The ruckus over a short-lived WSFS Inc. (detailed in chapter 24 of A Wealth of Fable, and alluded to by me in a previous posting) has left scars in fandom that have lasted for fifty years.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, a sufficient number of people who had decided the Standing Committee needed trimming back succeeded in changing its name to the Mark Registration and Protection Committee. (This was subsequently shortened to Mark Protection Committee, or MPC.) Oddly enough, all they changed was the name, not the scope of the committee. A subsequent constitutional clean-up reduced the committee's scope to responsibility "for registration and protection of the marks used by or under the authority of WSFS." The governing structure of the MPC remains substantially that of the Standing Committee as created in the 1980s.

What Is the MPC?

The WSFS Mark Protection Committee is, at this time, the only permanent administrative structure of the World Science Fiction Society. Worldcons come and go, but the MPC remains, although its membership changes from year to year. The MPC's authority comes from section 1.7 of the WSFS Constitution.

What Does the MPC Do?

The WSFS MPC manages the intellectual property of the World Science Fiction Society. This means that it registers the service marks on "Worldcon," "Hugo Award," and the other marks over which WSFS claims rights. (The full list is at section 2.2 of the WSFS Constitution.) It maintains the registrations on existing marks (you have to renew them every few years), and attempts to protect the marks from conflicting uses that would damage their usefulness as service marks.

For example, some years ago a group of energy engineers combined several smaller events under one roof and called it "Worldcon." Bruce Pelz, driving near the Anaheim Convention Center, was disconcerted to see the electronic sign say "Welcome Worldcon" at a time when it definitely should not be doing so, and brought the matter to the MPC's attention. The MPC, through its attorney, contacted the energy engineers to point out that they were infringing upon our registered service mark. The engineers were skeptical of us at first, claiming that there was no way that anyone could possibly confuse their serious association with such a trivial event as a sci-fi convention. Fortunately for our claim, people began calling Worldcon Atlanta Inc. (parent of the 1986 Worldcon, ConFederation) with questions about the engineers' event -- their association happened to be located in Atlanta. The engineers attempted to register their version of "Worldcon" but were unsuccessful. After several rounds of letters (no lawsuits), the engineers changed the name of their event to "GlobalCon" and the WSFS MPC had earned its biggest victory (and probably deflected the most serious potential conflict on the name "Worldcon" as the name of a convention).

Note that the MPC incurred substantial legal expenses in defending this mark. Even though we never had to go to court, an attorney's time is expensive. This was not a do-it-yourself job; the stakes were too serious. Donations from past Worldcon committees with surplus funds paid for the cost of this mark defense. We'll come back to the subject of money later.

The MPC has been slowly expanding the registration of the WSFS marks outside of the USA. It is the MPC's policy that, subject to resource availability, it will attempt to register the WSFS marks in any country that has hosted more than one Worldcon, which as of 2007 is the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia. Besides the existing US registrations, WSFS has some marks registered in the UK and in Australia, and registration is pending in Canada. The MPC is not certain how the UK registrations affect the EU as a whole.

For the same reason as the service marks (it's impractical for individual Worldcons to do so), the MPC also maintains the domain name registrations for the WSFS internet domains, and manages the WSFS web site.

What is the Membership of the MPC?

The MPC's membership is defined in section 1.8 of the WSFS Constitution. It consists of nine elected members and a variable number of appointed members. The appointees come from all future and the previous two years' Worldcon and NASFiC committees. Because the number of NASFiC committees fluctuates, the total membership of the MPC also changes from year to year.

Elected members serve three-year terms, and three MPC members are elected each year by the WSFS Business Meeting. There are geographic restrictions (based on the old site-selection rotation zones) that determine how many elected members may reside in a given area at any time. (Members are considered to be residents of the area where they lived at the time of their election, so they can't be disqualified if they move to a different "overloaded" region during their term of office, although they might not be eligible for re-election.)

As of this writing in July 2007, besides the nine elected members, there are appointed members from Nippon 2007, TuckerCon (2007 NASFiC), and Denvention Three (future) as well as Interaction, CascadiaCon (2005 NASFiC), and L.A.con IV (past).

Terms of members (elected and appointed) begin and end at the conclusion of each year's WSFS Business Meeting. So, at the conclusion of the WSFS BM at Nippon 2007, Interaction and CascadiaCon's appointments expire and an appointment from the 2009 Worldcon begins.

By tradition and precedent, Worldcon/NASFiC appointees are "at the pleasure of the appointing authority," so a Worldcon, for instance, can appoint a new representative anytime it wants to do so. This can be handy when the original appointee is unable to attend the next Worldcon.

Elected members represent only themselves, and may not send proxies to meetings. (As a general principle of parliamentary law, proxies are prohibited except when specifically authorized by a society's governing document.)

The MPC also has on its own initiative appointed non-voting members and subcommittees with responsibility for specific tasks, such as collecting mail from a fixed mailing address, or acting as the Committee's agent in various circumstances. The MPC currently has a non-voting Agent for Canada right now, for instance, as WSFS is attempting to register all of its marks in Canada. The MPC also has a subcommittee working on improving the image of the Hugo Award.

When Does the MPC Meet? Who Runs It?

The MPC's meets regularly only twice a year, and those meetings are only a few days apart. Sometime on the first day of Worldcon, usually late in the day, the MPC holds the last meeting of its current term, and finalizes its report to the WSFS Business Meeting. Sometime after the last WSFS Business Meeting -- often immediately thereafter, and usually in the same room, if there is sufficient programming time to do so -- the MPC holds the first meeting of its term and elects its officers, including a Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary, and Treasurer.

There are no regulations on what officers the MPC has to have, other than the basic guidance from our parliamentary authority that all groups need a Chair and Secretary. The quorum for a meeting of the MPC is a majority of its voting members.

Most of the work of the MPC actually takes place on-line, through a committee mailing list. Very rarely, when there is a serious threat to a WSFS mark, the committee has held special meetings; however, it is generally very difficult to obtain a quorum (currently eight members) of the MPC at any in-person meeting other than at a Worldcon. About the only other conventions where such gatherings are possible are SMOFCon, Boskone, and Westercon, and not always then.

Who Pays For All This?

The WSFS MPC has no dedicated funding, and is totally dependent upon donations, mostly from Worldcon committees, to pay for its operations.

Traditionally, Worldcon committees have donated $1 per site selection voter to the MPC. This donation per voter has been the same amount since the formation of the Standing Committee, even though inflation has eroded the value of that donation in half (and voting fees are roughly twice what they were in the early 1980s).

The MPC does not spend a whole lot of money. The most important service marks have already been registered, so the MPC merely needs to renew them every few years. Worldcons in the UK and Canada have dedicated their donations to paying for the renewals and registrations in those countries. However, WSFS does have legal bills, as it has an attorney who does spend some time consulting with us and dealing with mark infringement issues. Also, because the renewal fees tend to come in batches N years after initial registration, the MPC has to think long-term and save up money for several years in anticipation of a future renewal.

When the MPC needs money, it goes to Worldcon committees and explains the problem and how much it needs. To date, there has never been a serious difficulty in obtaining needed funds when properly justified.


The WSFS Mark Protection Committee, as the only permanent WSFS body, is at least in theory the organization's executive branch. However, the MPC is an extremely weak executive, responsible for only a tiny area in which individual Worldcon committees have to cooperate because there is no practical way for them to handle some things indivdiually. The funding structure assures that the MPC is completely dependent upon individual Worldcon committees, and its governing structure means that there are unlikely to ever be any sudden changes, only slowly evolving ones.

Because of the conservative and relatively powerless structure of the MPC, it can be pretty frustrating to work within the MPC even in those narrow areas where it is authorized to work independently of the Worldcon committees or the Business Meeting. For those of you with knowledge of American History, the governing structure of WSFS, with a weak legislature and a nearly powerless joint executive, is analogous to that of the USA under the Articles of Confederation, with the individual Worldcon committees as the US states. However, the current structure of WSFS has managed to hold together and get some things accomplished (including registering the WSFS marks in the USA and protecting them from some serious infringements) over the past 25-plus years.

Note that some of the events I describe in this article happened before I started attending Worldcons in 1984, or during the period 1985-88 when I was not participating actively in WSFS business. I have attended every Worldcon since and including 1989, and have chaired the WSFS MPC for the past several years, but this article represents my own opinion only, not that of the WSFS or the MPC or any Worldcon or NASFiC Committee.

Update, 11 July 17:30: Added more commentary about WSFS Inc. as a result of feedback in comments.
Tags: mark protection, service marks, worldcon, wsfs
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