The United States military’s first “space” battle might be against a Fortune 500 company. Netflix’s recent series “Space Force” is based on the United States Arms Forces’ newest branch of the same name. While Donald Trump announced in 2018 the formation of Space Force as part of the military, Netflix has since managed to secure the trademark rights for the use of the title “Space Force” around Europe, Central America and Asia for merchandising purposes.
A potential legal battle is set to ensue between Netflix and the US government in securing the rights of “Space Force” at home. While the government does have a pending licence currently on hold with the USPTO, it seems that Netflix could potentially win a contest with the government. However, it would be in the interest of the military to pursue the licensing of “Space Force” before Netflix beats them to it.
The owner of the sought-after trademark presents multiple opportunities for shaping public opinion. First of all, if the government owns the mark, it gets to control how other companies such as Netflix or any non-government affiliated corporation use the name. If the government has control over the “Space Force” trademark, companies can be encouraged to show the US forces in a favorable light and enhance their popularity among Americans.
As an interesting parallel, NASA has used its brand and trademark rights to promote itself in the public realm. For instance, it allows shoe and apparel company Vans to design shoes displaying the NASA logo. All companies that use NASA on their products must go through the space agency for approval. Vans benefits as well. It secures the market of space enthusiasts.
As the Space Force is relatively new, it would be helpful for its own image if its name is used in promotional materials. While a US spokesperson has commented that they have no knowledge of Netflix’s attempt to obtain the trademark rights, it would be in its best interest to pursue legal action while the government has an advantageous position. The USPTO operates in a “first to use basis” for trademarks, which means that priority is given for the entity that uses the trademark for a commercial basis first.
Nonetheless, one could also argue that giving Netflix this trademark in the US and abroad could benefit the government’s Space Force in the long run. If the show attracts a larger audience in subsequent seasons, the military’s Space Force could still reap from the cultural impact of the production. Albeit the show is satirical, it could popularize the US’ Space Force abroad.
At the end of the day, there are two immediate scenarios that can happen in the current situation. The government may decide not to pursue any legal action against Netflix and give up its claim over the trademark to the streaming company. Alternatively, the government might pursue legal action, resulting in difficulties for Netflix in obtaining the mark due to the priority advantage that the government holds with current trademark laws.
Nadim Dabbous is an incoming JD/MBA student at Osgoode Hall Law School.