IP, Technology & Data

The family of popular science fiction author Philip K. Dick alleges that Google is infringing the writer’s intellectual property rights.

In 1968 Dick wrote the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, and in 1980 the book was made into a movie (and given the distinctly snappier title of “Blade Runner”). Blade Runner’s plot revolves around “Nexus 6 replicants” – robots who look like humans. Google has just launched a new smartphone named “Nexus One”.

Google claims that it is just using the word “Nexus” to mean a place where things converge. Isa Dick Hackett, Dick’s daughter, is quoted in the Telegraph as saying: “Google takes first and then deals with the fallout later”. “In my mind, there is a very obvious connection to my father’s novel. People don’t get it. It’s the principle of it. It would be nice to have a dialogue. We are open to it. That’s a way to start.”

I’m sympathetic to Ms Hackett’s view. Blade Runner is one of the most famous and influential science-fiction films of all time. It’s a highlight of Harrison Ford’s glittering career and star villain Rutger Hauer has lived off it ever since. It’s fair to say that it has given the term “Nexus” far wider exposure than it would otherwise have attained (especially amongst geek sci-fi “fanboys”, who just happen to also like buying new technology).

However, is Google actually breaking any laws? For a start, it’s not clear which type of intellectual property right the Dick family is seeking to rely on. It’s unlikely to be copyright, because Google aren’t using a specific Nexus 6 replicant character. (In any case there’s probably a question mark over who would own the copyright in the Blade Runner characters – it could be either the writer of the book or the director of the movie).

The Dick family is more likely to seek to rely on “Nexus” being a trade mark, or an indication of origin which, when used, would make consumers think of Philip K. Dick and his books. There are numerous hurdles for the Dick family to clear here, the most difficult being that “Nexus” was never actually trade marked by Philip K. Dick. (In contrast, the term “droid” from Star Wars was trade marked by George Lucas, and Motorola recently paid Lucas to license “Droid” for their new phone.)

In the absence of a registered trademark, the basic question you have to ask is: “Is the use of “Nexus” going to make anybody think that the phone has been created by, or in some way approved by, Philip K.Dick?”

In a peculiar way, it occurs to me that the plot of Blade Runner may actually help Google here. As every good geek knows, Nexus 6 replicants have an in-built 4-year lifespan. It could be argued that there’s no way Google would want to invite an association with Nexus 6 replicants, because this might make consumers think that their phone is likely to seize up and die after 4 years!

ps – Deckard was a replicant.