I’ve been watching these guys at the MTA and their IP enforcement program for a while now. Once was for a client, who, regrettably, didn’t want to fight.
- I first picked up on this over four years ago, when I wrote,
The New York Times reported (yes, reg. req.) last week that New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is scrambling to enforce trademark rights in its wide array of iconography, including the famous alphanumeric train symbols known to all New Yorkers. . . .
Still and all, there is an interesting trademark policy issue in here somewhere. It’s one thing to say that services aren’t free and that even when, as in the case of the MTA, they succesfully address significant externalities, their costs should not be unduly disconnected from users. But it’s another thing to say that, however revenue-starved, a public institution (in the broad sense of the word) such as the MTA should restrict the public, much less the bloggy, enjoyment of a public iconography such as the train number symbols and the image of the classic subway token.
- A few months later I reported on a “crackdown” by the MTA on unauthorized distribution of copyright-protected maps of the subway, and cited Bill Patry, who said, in a similar vein:
There is no statutory bar to protection for original subway maps, therefore. There should, though, be a common sense bar but that, like common decency, is apparently lacking.
- Later in 2005 I saw the MTA’s overreaching finally exceed the breaking point, when it tried to register trademark rights in this original phrase (they were succesful, too).
What, really, is the point? It’s just your (my) tax money at work.
- In 2006 I noted a story reporting that — unlike a lot of other copyright, trademark and right-of-publicity owners who have not made a peep — the MTA made those masters of confusion, “Jews for Jesus,” stop using the transit symbols in their underground evangelizing, though in reality, they probably didn’t have to.
- Then, most recently, I “covered” an item — involving official New York City family planning devices bearing a “subway theme,” regarding which I suggested, somewhat tongue in
This suddenly came to my attention again, when, three weeks ago, the following comment appeared on that two year old post:
There is an interesting discussion going on about this at Flickr [I assume he means this -- LOC]. The MTA is now trying to stop people from selling prints of pictures they took on the subway apparently because they contain the route symbols. What will this mean to the thousands of prints that are sold by railfans at train shows every year? Unfortunately the route symbol is also a functional display that is part of the train – if it is photoshopped out of the picture then the picture becomes editorially and historically inaccurate. They are going too far with this and it is not as if these pictures earn huge profits – no-one ever got rich selling prints at train shows!
No, no huge profits — but huge employment justification for people who work in municipal IP enforcement agencies. That story has been picked up here.
- There’s more! There’s this — it seems that New York’s MTA is asserting “rights” in route symbols that don’t exist in New York, but do exist in San Francisco, against the designer of t-shirts bearing the gags below!
- And now, the item that reminded me of all this:
Chris Schoenfeld received a Digital Millenium Copyright Act notice asking him to take his application down, as MTA’s train and bus schedules were copyrighted intellectual property.
It’s idiotic. Unlike private parties, the City [and the "authorities"]– which, historically has acted as if taxpayer money grew on trees — has “no budget.” No budget is a term of art in the field of intellectual property for “we don’t settle, because we don’t have to.” Merits are irrelevant when there is no down side to litigating; all the more so when, to the contrary, someone’s job or department or seniority depends on finding things, no matter how idiotic, to justify his existence.
That looks a lot like what’s going on here. See, there’s nothing private parties can do in business and law that the government can’t do worse!
Maybe next time I see this guy on the train, I’ll ask him about it.
MTA has made an official statement backing off my website completely, reversing their lawyer’s vehement condemnation and call for the takedown of my website last week via telephone.
Martin Cassidy has posted his story on the fight between StationStops and the MTA in the Stamford Advocate.
In the article:
Schoenfeld said Freundlich also told him that the stationstops.com site may infringe the MTA’s copyright, but (MTA Spokesman) Ortiz said the MTA has no issue with the site.
But wait, there’s even… Moore! Joe Moore of 40withegg — the San Francisco guy — wins:
Thanks to the persistence and support of many people the NY MTA has acknowledged that their own claim that I violated their trademark was a mistake.
After contacting me on 09/02/2009, SF Weekly writer Anna McCarthy describd my Muni-shirt story in her article “NYC’s Metropolitian Transporation Authority Threatens Man Marketing S.F. Muni T-Shirts”. In addition, she contacted the NY MTA regarding their insistence that my art infringes upon their intellectual property rights (trademark). Their response — what trademark violation? Quoting Ms. McCarthy’s article:
[In] a recent phone interview, a spokesman for the agency, Aaron Donovan, seemed to backtrack: “We have no claim on Muni’s icons, we would need to look into the specifics of this case in greater detail to determine why the letter may have been sent,” he said. “The images on Mr. Moore’s blog did not appear to show anything that would represent a trademark violation against the New York MTA.”
No they didn’t, did they? The MTA is way off track here. Who’s conducting this train, anyway?