UPDATE 22 May 2013: A significant change in the Ri position is very welcome but far from perfect. See bit.ly/18QpKDp. 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.
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
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.