Brow Beat

Who Owns Cocky?

A trademark war roils the romance world.

A selection of books from the Cocky series by Faleena Hopkins.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Romance publishing is a billion-dollar industry, and one of the few things the romance world enjoys more than happy endings or secret babies is a good dick pun. But a trademark dispute is now threatening the right of romance novelists to write about cocky auditors or cocky olympic curlers. Who owns cocky?

In early May, Faleena Hopkins, a self-published author of a series of 18 romance novels starring the fictional Cocker brothers, with titles like Cocky Cowboy and Cocky Senator, sent cease-and-desist letters to several independent authors. At issue was the use of the word cocky in the titles of their books. In April and May, Hopkins obtained trademarks for the word cocky with regard to a “series of downloadable e-books in the field of romance.” In her attempts to enforce these trademarks, she sent emails, private messages, and even one-star Goodreads reviews, demanding that authors retitle their books or face legal action.

Author Jamila Jasper received this ominous entreaty: “I am writing to you out of professional respect so that you may rename your book Cocky Cowboy which shares the same title as my book … My attorney at Morris Yorn Entertainment Law has advised me that if I sue you I will win all the monies you have earned on this title, plus lawyer fees will be paid by you as well.” Jasper changed the title of her book to The Cockiest Cowboy to Have Ever Cocked.

Claire Kingsley, whose book Cocky Roommate resembles Hopkins’ Cocky Roomie, was first contacted last summer—apparently about the same time Hopkins began applying for the cocky trademark—to rename or remove her book. “She apparently believed I’d copied her and stolen her ideas, since we had similar book titles,” Kingsley told me. In fact, as of this writing, there were dozens of “cocky” romance books available on Amazon—some predating Hopkins’ titles. “I’d never heard of her, nor had I ever seen or read her books, so I assured her it was a coincidence,” said Kingsley.

Kingsley ignored the first message. Then last week, Hopkins approached Kingsley again, this time armed with her newly granted trademark, and informed Kingsley she had reported her to Amazon for a trademark violation. As a result, Amazon removed her title from the site. Within days, numerous books with cocky in the title were removed by Amazon or renamed by their authors.

Many over the past week have taken to Twitter and Facebook to relate their similar encounters with the person they now refer to as #ByeFaleena to the intensely tightknit romance community on social media. The controversy quickly jumped out of the romance sphere to attract attention and solidarity across a wide swath of the publishing world. Writers and concerned parties across all genres speculated over the precedent such a trademark sets and railed against Hopkins as a “trademark troll” motivated by greed, malice, and ignorance.

Hopkins presents a captivating villain in the age of Trump, decrying the bullies challenging her and the fake news spread by those she claims are jealous of her success. On Tuesday, she uploaded, then promptly deleted, a 100-minute video defense that came across as a rambling, ranting, performative bit of victim theater and an exercise in revisionism. In an email interview, she argued that sexism played a role in other writers’ response: “I hate to point this out because I’m a huge advocate of the balance of men and women needed in order to create happiness in society … But the truth is if I were a man, the attack would not have become the frenzy it has.” (Since cockygate began, similar campaigns against trademarks for rebellion and LitRPG have cropped up against Jason Kingsley, co-founder of Rebellion, an independent games and comics producer, and Aleron Kong, another independent author.)

To those who called her trademark abusive or cynical, Hopkins said she means no harm but is protecting her brand from imitation and fraud: “My only concern during this entire process was to protect the Cocky name on behalf of my fans and the future of this ongoing series.” Hopkins claimed in our conversation to have sold half a million books to date. The latest in her Cocky series, Cocky Heart Surgeon, published on April 20 of this year, was ranked No. 1,145 in the Amazon paid Kindle store as of this writing.

Author and retired lawyer Kevin Kneupper filed a petition of cancellation with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after seeing posts pop up in his Twitter feed. He was then contacted by attorney Lauren Emerson of Leason Ellis, an IP firm out of New York, who offered to work on the case pro bono. Romance Writers of America, a nonprofit trade association, became involved at the request of several of its members. “We’re working diligently behind the scenes to move things forward,” said Jessie Edwards, marketing and PR manager for RWA, “Amazon let us know they will not be removing titles from sale until this matter is resolved and have reinstated those they previously removed.” Kingsley’s e-book edition of Cocky Roommate was live on Amazon as of this writing, but the paperback was still unavailable.

Romance is flush with successful self-published authors who, in the Kindle era, have perfected a simple formula: sex puns and tropes. Readers in the genre are compulsively loyal to their preferred friends-to-lovers or fake marriage kinks and repulsed by the tropes that turn them off. Every tribe of romance reader adheres to their own certain rules: happy endings only, no cheating, or absolutely no love triangles. These rules are baked into the tropes that pervade romance, and thus titles become a shorthand for a book’s promise to the astute reader, who knows that in Cocky Roommate the heroine will get stuck with a sexy, arrogant roommate and sparks will fly, just as in Accidental Hero the damsel will be saved by a guy in the right place at the right time. While this single trademark won’t upend the entire genre, the implications, should Faleena succeed, are much larger. As author L.M. Brown put it, take cocky out of romance, space out of sci-fi, or murder out of mystery, and the bookshelves start to look rather bare.