Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Dear Royal Institution: Here's a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Please use it!

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

Let me first refer you to my earlier open letter, about your trademark on the name "Christmas Lectures."

Having had a bit more time to think, here's what I hope is a helpful suggestion.  On twitter I described this idea as a "Get Out of Jail Free Card".  

It's literally free to surrender either part or all of a trademark.  (The relevant forms are TM22 or TM23 on the UK IPO website).  There is a 3 month waiting period but you could of course announce straight away what you are doing.  

I can understand the Ri would be worried about surrendering the whole trademark, but if you quickly announce that you are voluntarily surrendering the parts of the trademark that you believe prevent Christmas Lectures being given around the country, we can all get on with our lives.  Most importantly science communicators can get on with planning great Christmas Lectures for 2013.

I don't have a precise list in mind of which parts should be surrendered but I'm sure you could quickly draw one up.  Presumably when you started insisting that my friends and other science communicators not give public Christmas Lectures without your permission, you had parts of the trademark claim in mind: those are the parts that I suggest you surrender.

Surrendering those parts would achieve a lot. 
  • You'd be withdrawing any threat to people like my friends and many many others, that the hard work they have put into Christmas lectures over years was now wasted.
  • You'd be openly admitting at least a partial mistake, which would make many people think better of you. Certainly including me.  I'd be very happy to praise you very highly for quickly fixing this problem.
  • You'd have a great platform to start moving towards the kind of Christmas Lectures community I mentioned in my blog post.  
  • You'd in no way inhibit any plans you might have to commercialise Ri's Christmas Lectures because of course nobody could use the name Ri Christmas Lectures or Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for any kind of event without agreement with you. 
  • You'd be preventing yourself being in the position of needing to threaten Universities and other science communicators with lawsuits (which is the only logical endpoint if a scientist chose to ignore your demands, for example if they believed that your trademark was invalid.) 
  • You'd only be surrendering parts of the trademark that are literally worthless, in the sense that clearly nobody giving a standard Christmas Lecture is going to pay money to the Ri to licence the name, when they derive no income from the lectures themselves (or at most a low ticket price to cover expenses.)   
  • You'd only be surrendering parts of the trademark that are (again literally) indefensible.  At least in my opinion from the small investigations I have done (and clearly I am not a lawyer) I cannot see how these parts of the trademark could stand if challenged.  In comments to my blog post I have given several reasons for this view as well as the blindingly obvious fact that "Christmas Lectures" is a generic phrase for a lecture at Christmas.
  • As I mentioned, it's free.  While I assume you spent money to get these parts of the trademark, I'm sure that a scientific body like the Ri would not fall for the sunk cost fallacy.   
  • Finally, you'd be abandoning the parts of the trademark that are (yet again literally) ridiculous in the sense that it has opened the Ri to ridicule.   Apart perhaps from some early exasperated tweets, I have strenuously tried to avoid ridiculing the Ri for this move: but others have not been so restrained.
Again as I've mentioned as a comment before, parts of the trademark relating to tv programmes are at least not ridiculous and make some sense. I might or might not disagree with them but would certainly not challenge them. 

This was meant to be a quick and short letter, but enumerating the advantages of the suggestion took so long because there are so many and no disadvantages at all.   

Please do play this Get Out Of Jail Free card!

very best wishes

Ian Gent

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