Wednesday 22 May 2013

Cheers and Jeers

There's some good news about Christmas Lectures.  The Royal Institution has updated its policy on the Christmas Lectures trademark.   You can read about it here in full.   But here are some key points for which the Ri deserves praise:

  • The Ri has recognised that the name Christmas Lectures for non-Ri events is very important to many science communicators.
  • In their words, "The Royal Institution recognises the goodwill and hard work that goes into organising" Christmas Lectures around the country. 
  • The Ri has proposed that Christmas Lectures this year form part of a "Christmas Festival of Science."  I think this is an excellent idea - as I mentioned in my original blog post.   Anything which can raise the visibility of Christmas Lectures around the country is good news in my opinion.   
  • The Ri has set up a simple form which anyone can use and which is not in my opinion onerous.  
  • The Ri has assured me that anyone using this form and who is a bona fide science communicator and not seeking to profit from the Lecture will receive approval from the Ri. 
  • The Ri has realised that it approached the trademark issue in the wrong way, sending out heavy handed "nastygrams" (as one tweeter described it.)  
  • My friend received an email apology for the upset caused to her, which I know she was very grateful for, and which it was good of them to take a moment to do in the melee of events.  
I am very happy to hear all of the above. I think it is good news and I am happy to recommend that anyone running a Christmas Lecture take part with the Ri's plans for a Christmas Festival.

But it's not all good news.  The Ri was quite right to move quickly to make these changes and I absolutely did not want to stand in their way.   But I still have major criticisms of their position.  

Here's the thing.

The Royal Institution still claims that they own the name "Christmas Lectures" as a trademark, and that it cannot be used without their permission.  And that this applies even to a not-for-profit Christmas Lecture given by any science communicator.  So they are still in the position that if you (for any reason) don't want to register your lecture, they claim you are infringing their trademark. The - absurd - endpoint of this is that they will have to sue you.

I absolutely am not a lawyer but I simply do not believe that the Ri trademark on a public and non-televised Christmas Lecture could possibly hold up if challenged.   The words are generic, have been used by many many lecturers for decades, and no conscientious consumer could think that a Christmas Lecture at their local University had anything to do with the Ri.   While the Ri persuaded the trademark office that they were entitled to the trademark, that is not an adversarial system with another side pointing out the ridiculous nature of their claims: if they sue anybody they will - I very much hope - be laughed out of court for some of these claims.

And even if I'm wrong about this - there's a very good chance I am - it is the only the Ri that cares.  Obviously even if they are right legally, the hurt and insult and "land grab" (another tweeter's phrase) on the name Christmas Lectures was a totally unnecessary own goal.

It's so easy Ri, use the get out of jail free card I gave you yesterday.  Withdraw the parts of the trademark claim relating to a public lecture.   Please please please do that.

You have nothing to lose by doing so and a lot of goodwill to lose if you don't.

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 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

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.