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.


  1. Michael Merrifield23 May 2013 at 09:59

    So here’s a thing. It turns out that the registered trade mark seems to be almost completely meaningless.

    I finally actually went and read the Trade Marks Act (1994) to see what’s what, and it turns out that there are certain cases in which you are not infringing a trade mark by using it. For example, you can always use your own name, so the Paul Smiths of this world can continue to trade even though it is a registered trade mark. Changing my name to Christmas Lecture seemed a little extreme, but it turns out to be unnecessary, because a further clause states that:

    "A registered trade mark is not infringed by the use of indications concerning the kind, quality, quantity, intended purpose, value, geographical origin, the time of production of goods or of rendering of services, or other characteristics of goods or services."

    So, if I choose to describe an activity as a Christmas Lecture because the kind of service being delivered is a lecture and the time of rendering of that service is around Christmas, I would not be infringing the Royal Institution’s trademark. I can even call them Christmas Lectures if there is more than one of them, to indicate the quantity.

    Problem solved. Just a shame the RI made themselves look so silly in the process.

  2. Michael Merrifield23 May 2013 at 10:42

    I should add that there may well be good reasons for registering the trade mark that are enforceable. For example, if someone else were to bring out a range of "Christmas Lecture" scientific toys, I am sure the RI would have a strong case having protected their name in this way. However, it surely cannot be applied to actual Christmas lectures for the reasons given above, and the sooner the RI makes this clear and stops trying to use their trade mark to raise their profile in yuletide outreach, the sooner they will start undoing the damage they have done to themselves.

  3. Toys are class 28. They haven't registered for that - so looks like you are free to make Christmas lectures toys.

    Looks like you could also open a bar (or creche) called "Christmas lectures" (class 32) at which you have live spoken word entertainment...just as long as you don't call that entertainment Christmas lectures directly.

    I wonder what will happen when they come up against woo, pseudo-science and just bad plain bad science. Will they endorse it into their festival of science? Will they refuse to endorse it and take action to block the use of "Christmas lectures" (a bit dangerous when going up against theological 'science' like young earth creationism)? Or will they just ignore it and let the name they are now associating themselves directly with be tarnished?

    Seems the only good route is to take action to block...but what if they lose? That would not be good PR at all.

  4. Sorry Michael, took me a while to come back to these comments. But I saw your twitter post and went wild tweeting to ri to try to get them to see this was another way out of the hole they had dug for themselves. It is so so easy. And the only alternative is to threaten people like you, or at least to threaten that they might choose to threaten people like you.

    And Dan's right, there's a lot of things you can do with the name Christmas Lectures which are not infringing.

    I think an interesting comparison is with "The Sky At Night". This is trademarked up to the hilt by the BBC. Including for lunchboxes (really). And yes, including lectures. Which is maybe a bit ugly, but then, "The Sky At Night" is not descriptive of a lecture. So it is reasonable to argue that a "Sky At Night Lecture" would be expected by a reasonable consumer to have something to do with the BBC tv programme (or at least be about the lunchboxes.)

    It's a bit less reasonable to think that just because the BBC had spent years building up the brand by showing the tv programme, the description one could not describe what was above one's head outside during the hours of darkness without infringing the trademark.

    BTW Dan I think suing somebody and losing would be much better for the Ri than suing somebody and winning. At least that way they would finally be forced to realise they had made a mistake.

  5. Michael Merrifield24 May 2013 at 12:00

    Not exactly good PR if they sue someone and win, Dan: "RI shuts down science outreach" might not be the kind of headline that would enhance their reputation. That's really what worries me about this whole thing -- they have launched into it apparently on the basis of a weak legal position, without having thought through any of the likely scenarios that will ensue, apart from the naively optimistic one that everyone happily places their excellent science under the RI banner. When that doesn;t happen, there seems to be no sequence of events that will place the RI in a good light.

  6. Yeah - none of this is good...but what I thought of as bad PR would be a headline like "Royal Institution beaten by creation scientists"

    But definitely "Royal Institution loses battle to prevent faith schools giving Christmas lectures" is probably as bad PR as "Royal Institution wins battle to prevent faith schools giving Christmas lectures"

    IANAHL (I am not a headline writer)


    yet another blog post about the trademark: I'd previously missed it.

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  9. Michael Merrifield17 July 2013 at 16:11

    Just received an email from the Royal Institution, which contained the following statement:

    When we originally wrote to people organising events called Christmas Lectures, we did so in the mistaken belief that we had to notify all third parties using CHRISTMAS LECTURES, in order to protect our rights. We have since realised that this is not, in fact, the case and again, we can only apologise for acting in haste without considering any possible negative response to our letter.


    So that no doubt remains: the Ri will not consider use of “Christmas Lectures” by academic establishments (or those working in or for academic establishments) for promoting lectures at Christmas time to infringe the Ri’s rights to the CHRISTMAS LECTURES trade mark. We do not wish to obstruct your promotion (or that of other educational establishments) of educational events at Christmas time and apologise for any uncertainty and aggravation our previous correspondence has clearly caused to some.