Saturday, 18 May 2013

An Open Letter To The Royal Institution

UPDATE 4 June 2013: An important blog comment on the legal position has been published, by the lawyer Simon Bradshaw.  This is certainly not legal advice but is important reading for anyone interested in this issue. I will not attempt to summarise it here.

UPDATE 22 May 2013: A significant change in the Ri position is very welcome but far from perfect.  See Some more detailed thoughts about it in my latest blog post.

Original post follows: 

Dear Royal Institution

When I thought about Christmas Lectures until yesterday, I thought of happy memories of watching the likes of Eric Laithwaite and Carl Sagan and Chris Zeeman, and of watching Marcus Du Sautoy and Chris Bishop with my children.  I also thought of my friends in Universities reaching out to school children talking about Raspberry Pis.

Today I think about protecting brand value and licensing arrangements and trademark infringement.  Why?  Well, you know, but any other readers might wonder.  So read on.

You recently mailed a friend of mine, who has been running a successful series of Christmas Lectures since 2008.

Others of my friends run Christmas Lectures. Here's Duncan Smeed's lovely lecture from last year on youtube.  The Strathclyde Christmas Lecture series has been running from 1994.

You have indeed been running a successful series of Christmas Lectures from 1825. That is longer. Your Christmas Lectures are more famous. They are on television.  They are wonderful. I saw many as a child and my children now love them - we've bought some on DVD and recorded others.

What was your email to my friend about?  Congratulations on joining the club of people dedicating time and University resources for nothing, to the benefit of local people and especially schoolchildren?


It said "we now own the term CHRISTMAS LECTURES® as a registered trademark." And then "the name CHRISTMAS LECTURES or CHRISTMAS LECTURE should not be used for any event without our consent to avoid this confusion. This applies to the description of the event as well as the title. It also applies to the organisation of one lecture or multiple lectures."

Oh wait. You knew that. Because you went to the trouble of trademarking "Christmas Lectures".  And mailing people who were giving Christmas Lectures.

And what you were telling people was: you are not allowed to give a lecture under the name "Christmas Lecture" - or even (I can't believe I'm writing this) in the description - without your permission.

I'd be with you 100% if people were using the name "RI Christmas Lecture" or even perhaps "Faraday Christmas Lecture".  But here's the thing. A Christmas Lecture is a lecture given at Christmas.  A vacuum cleaner is a cleaner which uses a vacuum. The word Hoover is a trademark but the phrase vacuum cleaner is not.  Maybe - and I am not a lawyer so what do I know? - your trademark is valid and will hold up if anyone stumps up the £200 to attempt to invalidate it.

But for the moment let's assume your registered trademark would hold up if challenged.  Here's my point.

It was wrong to trademark the two word phrase "Christmas Lectures" and it's wrong to attack those using the name Christmas Lectures.  

Wrong because Christmas Lectures are something many many people around the country have been doing. And have been doing for years.  I googled and found at random a 1977 New Scientist page listing five other Christmas Lectures around the country, not including your own.

Wrong because many scientists have given their time to encourage the public without thought of being challenged for doing so by the Royal Institution.

Wrong because those same lectures, from 1977, from 1994 on, from 2008 on, have added to the value of the name "Christmas Lectures."

According to your statements online, you say that you have owned the unregistered trademark and have only now registered it.  So according to this view, all my friends and their predecessors in 1977, were quite wrong to give Christmas Lectures.  They were guilty of passing off your property as their own.   You say now that "Ri has built up a tremendous brand over the years but now needs to be a bit more professional in protecting it and nurturing it for the greater good of science."   This means apparently  "We are in the process of drawing up a licensing arrangement for organisations that would like to maintain a strong association with the original CHRISTMAS LECTURES®."   Which is what you told my friend: hardly professional because you are saying my friend cannot give a lecture under the name Christmas Lecture but that at some indefinite date in the future some licensing deal might be struck.

Well, if you need to be professional about it now, then here's the last way you were wrong.

You're wrong because it's NOT just the Ri who has built up this brand.  It's my friends and many many others over the decades.  Now all that value that has been added to your brand is being taken over whole by you without reward.   With the false sense of security that these people assumed that you and they were in this together, building up the great affection so many of us have for the name "Christmas Lectures."  But apparently not.  Apparently they were (I'm not sure which) passing off your own property as their own, or giving you a free gift of additional brand value even though they didn't know it.  And there they were innocently thinking that they were giving Christmas Lectures to encourage children and adults to learn about science.

Here's what you should do.  Withdraw the trademark on the name "Christmas Lectures", and if you wish put a trademark on names which you clearly and rightly do own and, such as "Royal Institution Christmas Lectures" or "Ri Christmas Lectures".  If anyone wants to give a "Royal Institution Christmas Lecture", of course they must talk to you and licence the name to your satisfaction.

Here's what you must do for the good of science communication in this country. Publicly state that any and all Christmas Lectures are welcome this year and every year, under that name, without further permission or licensing from you, if the goal is communication to the public. That you would only ever object if there was some unfair attempt to imply connection with the Ri, or perhaps to profit from the event. I'm not aware of any Christmas Lectures run for profit, so it's inconceivable this could hurt any of my friends.  If you like, insist that a Christmas Lecture not sanctioned by you must state that it has no formal connection and is not approved by the Royal Institution.

Here's the sad thing.  You had the chance to reach out to my friends and many others around the country who love all Christmas Lectures, and form a community of people who would have loved to work with you to make Christmas Lectures a countrywide celebration.

But you trademarked "Christmas Lectures" and are telling people not to use those words to describe their events.

Your long time Christmas Lectures fan

Ian Gent

p.s. the comments section of this post is open for any reply from the Royal Institution.  If it's easier for you to do so please feel free to mail me and I will be happy to post your replies in the comments section for you.


  1. Well said! Come on, RI, be mature and smart enough to recognize that you have made a ridiculous mistake, and make a clear statement that you have no intention of enforcing this absurd trademark, so that anyone who wishes to describe their Christmas lectures as Christmas lectures is free to do so. That way, you might retrieve a little of the good will of the many fairly selfless people who give their time to promote science in this country, which I had always assumed was your remit.

  2. All that follows on the basis that I am not a lawyer. And as I state above, my main case is that it is wrong to hold this trademark on the assumption that it is legal.

    Just for the record here is the actual trademark description.

    It's interesting that it has been granted on the basis that distinctiveness has been "acquired by use." This is a legal term which from my quick wikipedia'ing seems to mean that a reasonable member of the public, seeing a service advertised as a Christmas Lecture, would assume it was coming from the Royal Institution in some way. I think therefore the claim is that a reasonable member of the public going to a Strathclyde CS Christmas Lecture would assume it had some link with the Ri. That seems ridiculous to me personally, but I think that is the grounds the claim has been granted on.

    Secondly see this (further wikipedia alert)

    It seems that if this is a trademark which is distinctive and the Ri wishes to stop it becoming generic, they are required - this is not in any way optional to them - to provide the public with an alternative generic name that will be widely acceptable. E.g. Xerox lobbied for the use of the word "photocopy" instead of Xerox, so they could say "Xerox photocopier".

    By analogy, for the sake of argument, suppose the trademark was for RiXmasLecs (R). They would be quite right to insist that only the Ri could provide the service of an RiXmasLecs (r) Christmas Lecture. But anyone could provide a Christmas Lecture.

    So hence, the Ri is - if Wikipedia is right - required to suggest the name they think should be used instead. So the Strathclyde CS science lectures at christmas be called that. This is not an option or something that people should need to talk to Ri about. So far I have seen zero communications from the Ri on what the generic name for the service of delivering a science lecture at Christmas should be.

    Again caveat repeat. None of the above may be correct.

  3. I particularly like the bit where Wikipedia says that Christmas Lectures must be used in a standard way as an adjective, not a noun. The only adjectival use I've found so far at the Ri site is the "Christmas Lectures Trademark"

  4. I'd be interested to know WHEN it was that the Royal Institution feels that the name "Christmas Lectures" stopped being generic and started being their own unregistered trademark.

    Interesting detective work by Dan Ridley-Ellis makes it hard for me to work this out.

    So for example:

    In 1978 the New Scientist did not describe the Ri lectures as "Christmas lectures" but did describe a number of other lectures explicitly in that way. Is the RI claiming that by 1978 the trademark existed? (see p 872 of

  5. While here is an 1861 "Christmas Lecture on Coal", again thanks to Dan for this link.

  6. Yet more digging from the heroic Dan. A selection of Royal Christmas lectures, none of them the Royal Institution.

    Royal Society of Edinburgh
    Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
    Royal College of Physicians
    Royal Society Of Medicine
    Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
    Royal Television Society
    Royal Observatory
    Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

  7. Yet again I repeat the caveats that I am not a lawyer. Also that the legal position is not fundamental to my main case, which is that on the basis that the trademark would stand up, it is still wrong to enforce it.

    But the notion of acquiring distinctiveness is interesting. Here is the link to some comments by the IPO:

    Here is a quote: "Instead the views of an average consumer must also be taken into account. Such a consumer is reasonably well informed, observant and circumspect. Such a consumer is unlikely to have come to recognise a sign as being one that identifies the trade source of the goods/services, unless the proprietor has educated the consumer to that perception."

    To my non-lawyer eyes, this implies that a consumer who is well informed, observant and circumspect, must come to the conclusion when seeing a Christmas Lecture advertised, like one of the many Royal ones above, that the very fact it was named Christmas Lecture implies that it was performed or approved by the Royal Institution. Furthermore that the consumer has come to this conclusion in part because of the efforts made by the Royal Institution in the past to educate the consumer to that perception.

  8. Let me also say this. Trademarks are a reasonable thing and it's also reasonable for charities to hold trademarks, and for science communicators to hold trademarks. I hope that nothing I have said would suggest anything else.

    The complaint I have is about this specific trademark, namely for the two words "Christmas Lecture". I believe these words are generic and not descriptive of specific Ri intellectual property. But much more importantly, whether I am right or wrong on that, I believe it is harmful to science communication in the UK to attempt to restrict these words from being used by bona fide and enthusiastic science communicators around the country. Because nobody had any idea until they started getting emails from the Ri that these words were a trademark.

  9. As you say, what the Ri have done is annoying because they are laying claim to something that many others have helped build up. They are saying that any success that others have had from doing Christmas Lectures is down to their reputation. They are wrong. They have certainly helped to shape what Christmas Lecture means in the public mind - which is wonderful - but that's not the same thing as them owning Christmas Lectures as a trademark.

    I don't believe that they have the right to claim it as a trademark

    More importantly, they should not have claimed it. It will do more harm than good. To them and to science communication generally.

    Also, I don't see how they can possibly enforce it without sending lots of bullying letters and frightening people into complying. Do they think that this bad PR would be offset by the opportunity for us to be officially endorsed by Ri? Seems everyone gets on just fine without that thanks.

    I say this as someone who has never given and never organised a Christmas Lecture. I have been to them though...and not because of Ri.

  10. It only occurred to me this morning that perhaps in one area the Ri's trademark claim is potentially reasonable. As a description of tv programmes, there is at least a credible claim that "Christmas Lectures" are associated with the Ri. Though others have used it for science based tv programmes, e.g. the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

    There are a number of major differences between the name "Christmas Lecture" for a tv programme and a public lecture at Christmas. For TV, the name is not generic, because the generic name is "tv programme". Also, I would expect that there is at least some chance that an educated consumer might feel that a Christmas Lecture on tv was somehow associated with the Ri. And - again unlike public lectures with all the examples mentioned by me and Dan - there are not many others building up value in this mindspace - i.e. of tv programmes called "Christmas Lectures". These are all major differences and if the claim was for "Christmas Lecture" as a brand name for tv programmes, I might or might not like it but at least I would see the sense of it.

    The reason this only occurred to me this morning is that TV programmes are only a part of the wider trademark claim, and moreover they have been demanding that the name Christmas Lectures not be used for public lectures where TV transmission is not even a remove possibility.

    It is the use of "Christmas Lectures" as a trademark for public lectures on science at Christmas that I find objectionable. I do not think a trademark that broad should have been applied for, I do not think it should have been granted (and of course I say that as a non lawyer), and very very definitely indeed the Ri should not even have thought about enforcing it.

  11. I'd like to thank Prof Frank Close very much for tweeting that he opposes the trademark on Christmas Lectures.

    Prof Close gave the 1993 Ri Christmas Lectures on "The Cosmic Onion". Unfortunately these are not available from the Ri either online or on DVD, though their website does say that they are in the process of being digitised.

  12. I also want to add a clarification ... I've never thought that the Ri wants to ban people giving science lectures at Christmas time.

    Some of my early tweets may have given the wrong impression and if so I apologise. E.g. on Friday I tweeted 'Royal Institution wants to ban "Christmas Lectures" because they trademarked it.'

    This was brought on by the use of twitter and the character limit. The quotes around C.L. were intended to indicate the name was what was being banned (and again space precluded "without permission from Ri")

    In any case, I never thought that the Ri wanted exclusive rights to the concept of science lectures at Christmas and it was never my intention to imply that. If anybody read my tweets as saying that then I apologise for not being clearer.

  13. I fully support Ians view.
    I do not think that 'Christmas lecture' is a trademark-able expression as it has been used worldwide, possibly for centuries. I have not got any connection to the RI and (apart from this 'incident' will never have. A 'Christmas Lecture' is what Ian says, a 'lecture for/at Christmas'.
    I am slightly embarrassed to live in a society where people and companies actually CAN (and DO) trademark expressions like that.

    Thanks, Ian, for this letter, if you want to sned a petition or letter that one could sign, I'd be very happy to do so.

    Boris Haeussler

  14. I would say, go for Civil Disobedience® (but I'm not a lawyer either...)