Val McDermid, Queen of Crime, is probably not in trouble with the law over Agatha Christie estate trademark claim – Colin Hulme

Author Val McDermid has recently gone public regarding a legal threat received over use of the slogan “Queen of Crime”.

Val McDermid is unlikely to face legal trouble over a trademark claim by the Agatha Christie estate regarding the phrase 'Queen of Crime' (Picture: John Linton/PA)
Val McDermid is unlikely to face legal trouble over a trademark claim by the Agatha Christie estate regarding the phrase 'Queen of Crime' (Picture: John Linton/PA)

Agatha Christie’s estate has reportedly alleged a trademark infringement around the use of the words in publicising McDermid’s books, and suggested legal proceedings will follow if her publishers continue to use the slogan.

It appears a company called Agatha Christie Limited has indeed registered two trademarks for Queen of Crime, which apply to books and other printed material. This means that if these words are used by McDermid’s publishers, it may be trademark infringement.

If that was established, it would be open to Agatha Christie Limited to seek an injunction to prevent any repetition and even some financial remedy.

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However, it’s not certain that a trademark infringement could be established here. It would need to be shown that: the same words are being used (they are); that the words are being used on books or printed material (I assume they are); and that it is being done in a way that will cause confusion with Agatha Christie Limited’s trade mark.

On the last point, I am not so sure. If McDermid’s publishers produce a book with “Val McDermid – Queen of Crime” emblazoned at the top, would anyone be confused into thinking that the book might be by Christie?

I doubt it. Unless it was judged that the public might think that there is some association between McDermid and Christie, then establishing a trademark infringement may be a challenge.

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Queen of Crime: Agatha Christie or Val McDermid? Legal threats are no way to tre...

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Agatha Christie Limited would face a further obstacle, which is that these words could be construed as being descriptive, rather than a brand indicating origin. It is also not unique to Christie as the phrase “the Queen of Crime” has also been applied to crime authors Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, all of whom were writing last century.

However, it seems only the Christie estate has had the foresight to seek to claim a monopoly over the accolade.

The Christie estate should not be able to prevent others describing McDermid as being a “Queen of Crime”, or the use of the words in a descriptive way. There are limits to the extent a trademark grants a monopoly over the use of common English words.

However, as in all great crime novels, there’s always a twist in the tale.

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As Christie’s books are so popular, they might be able to claim that the Queen of Crime trademark is famous and deserves enhanced protection. After all, she is the most read author since Shakespeare!

If such fame could be established and it was shown that McDermid’s publishers were using the phrase in a way that takes unfair advantage of it, then they may well have a case.

A couple of points are worth considering here. Firstly, it was a good move by the Christie estate to secure the trademark so that they could at least claim this monopoly over the phrase.

But secondly, I do wonder if sending a claim letter to such a popular and media-savvy author was a stroke of genius worthy of Hercule Poirot, particularly when success is not certain.

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Colin Hulme is a partner and head of intellectual property at independent law firm Burness Paull

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