Netflix has found itself at the centre of a trademark battle following the release of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive film which puts the player in control of the action via a series of largely-binary decisions.
Based, about as loosely as you could possibly get, on the planned ZX Spectrum 'Megagame' of the same name which was to launch in 1984 for £40 (£120, corrected for inflation) before its developer would run out of money and enter bankruptcy, Netflix's Bandersnatch is a feature-length episode of the speculative fiction series Black Mirror with a twist: Players are given a series of binary options at varying points of the narrative, and a few seconds in which to decide which path to take. Unlike previous efforts, including Minecraft Story Mode, this branching narrative is then built into the plot of the film itself: Players are actively encouraged to explore different paths, and it's not possible to reach the true endings and associated credit sequences without having backtracked several times.
In the film's introductory sequence, lead character Stefan Butler describes the game he's working on - a ZX Spectrum title larger than any other - as being based on a brick-thick tome by in-universe psychotic author Jerome F. Davies called Bandersnatch. When Butler's father points out that it can't be well-written as he's always flicking backwards and forwards, Butler explains it's a 'choose your own adventure' book - a printed equivalent to Netflix's branching-narrative interactive film, as popularised by Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, and, indeed, the Choose Your Own Adventure franchises.
It's here that Netflix has landed in hot water: Chooseco LLC, owner of the Choose Your Own Adventure trademark, has sued the company for a whopping $25 million for its use of the term in association with what it describes, not inaccurately, as a film containing extremely adult themes.
'Fictional "Bandersnatch" is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book nor does the movie adhere to the Choose Your Own Adventure rules about successful interactive storytelling,' claims Chooseco co-founder and publisher Shannon Gilligan. 'The misappropriation of our mark by Netflix presents an extreme challenge for a small independent publisher like Chooseco. We have received an unprecedented amount of outreach from people who believed we were associated with the creation of this film, including parents who were concerned that we had aligned the CYOA brand they knew and loved with content that surprised and offended them.
'The use of Choose Your Own Adventure in association with such graphic content is likely to cause significant damage, impacting our book sales and affecting our ability to work with licensing partners in the future. We would prefer not to resort to litigation, but given the damage that we will suffer as a result of the use of our mark we've been left with no other option.'
Chooseco's complaint stems from the use of the term 'choose your own adventure' in both the script and selected marketing from Netflix, linking the trademark to a film containing 'extreme physical violence, murder, drug use and a choice about the death of a child'. While it's true that Chooseco currently owns the Choose Your Own Adventure registered trademark, though, the company had nothing to do with the creation of the brand nor the gamebook genre in general: The first Choose Your Own Adventure title was published in 1979 by Bantam Books, based on earlier novels written by Edward Packard as the Adventure of You franchise in 1976, but declining interest in the genre saw the company - owned today by Random House - allow the trademark to lapse. Chooseco was founded in 2004, without Packard's involvement, specifically to snatch up the trademark and with it the rights to selected original titles - and the company has been aggressive in its defence ever since.
Netflix, which has poured considerable money into both the development of and marketing for Bandersnatch, has not publicly responded to Chooseco's complaint. Bandersnatch itself, meanwhile, is available now for Netflix subscribers.
May 15 2020 | 11:00