Call Off Christmas

Some interesting “MOOCs will change everything” stuff on the webby-media today. Although I blogged about this a short while ago, I am tempted to have another go. But while I think about this, here is something much sillier.

The Royal Institution have decided to trademark the phrase “Christmas Lectures”. No really. If you give a lecture at Christmas, and advertise it as a Christmas Lecture, you may be breaking the law. Here is their official statement, and here is a blog post by Ian Gent explaining why it is a very bad idea, as well as an unjustified one. Those of who follow Mike Merrifield on Twitter will know that he is particularly miffed, being already booked to give a series of Christmas Lectures this year… The official statement includes an email address if you’d like to discuss this with the RI…

Well. We understand why they are doing it I suppose. But yea verily, it is an silly idea. Here is Alan Rickman in his classic impersonation of a stressed out RI Director :

24 Responses to Call Off Christmas

  1. Dave says:

    I see a whole series of Scrooge Lectures coming if they don’t recant.

  2. […] has been covered in blogs elsewhere, but I thought I should add my name to the chorus of […]

  3. […] has been covered in blogs elsewhere, but I thought I should add my name to the chorus of […]

  4. […] For more blog outrage, see here, here , here…. (cont., […]

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    Enough back pedalling from the RI to power the whole place by dynamo, in a demonstration that Faraday would have been proud of.

    They do, however, seem to still be under the delusion that someone put them in charge of outreach at Christmas.

    Click to access Christmas%20Lectures%20trademark.pdf

    • andyxl says:

      Is the correct approach to ignore it and await any legal challenge?

      • ian smail says:

        christ… there solution is more form-filling – they must have got that idea from a university admin.

        why can’t they just change their trademark to “RI Christmas Lecture” (which no one will object to, or likely infringe) and leave everyone else in peace?

      • Omar says:

        Nowhere near enough back pedalling in my opinion. Have you seen the ridiculous form? You are only entitled to call your event “[Location] Christmas Lecture”, your event must be considered part of their ‘festival of science’, and your advertising must include a statement advertising the Royal Institution. Above all, you must seek their permission. This is completely absurd.

  6. andyxl says:

    Ian – the point is that RI really do want to own Christmas. Consider their dilemma by comparing to a University or a Government Lab. They don’t have teaching income. They don’t have research grants. They don’t have major government responsibilities. So they have to wash their own face through the public spending their poonds. As a commercial enterprise, they will have been following standard business wisdom that (a) you have to establish a brand, and (b) you have to protect your brand. They want – they need – the public to identify “Christmas Lecture” with the RI.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Ian — the bizarre part is that they don’t even have to register RI Christmas Lecture, as anyone trying to use that title would fall foul of the common law tort of “passing off.”

    As for the legal challenges, they don’t seem to have even thought that through: if they don’t sue, the paperwork is pointless; if they do sue, they are back in a negative publicity hell.

    Ironically, the Christmas festival of science sounds an excellent idea. But trying to bully people into signing up really isn’t the way to make a success of it.

  8. andyxl says:

    Actually this makes me think of how to articulate the flaw in their logic. Normally the purpose of branding might be that when someone thinks they want a vacuum cleaner, the word “Hoover” pops into their head and they think “I must go to the shop and buy a Hoover”. The analogy is that when Joe Public thinks “science” around xmas time, they think they want to go to a “Christmas Lecture”, which means “Lecture at the RI” – so they pop off to Albermarle Street. However if you live in Nottingham you ain’t going to do this. You will just go to Mike’s lecture. So the consumer advantage doesn’t really even work. Except maybe it would spoil anything UCL are thinking of doing…

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      Well, their original plan had the clear commercial motive of charging anyone who dared to use the magic words “Christmas Lecture” £200 for the privilege, which would have been a nice little earner.

      All the subsequent nonsense seems to be at least in part motivated by an attempt to back away from the carnage that ensued while saving face by not simply writing the whole thing off as a dumb idea.

      • andyxl says:

        Ah, yes, forgot that. Licensing is the other standard Business 101 thing of course.

      • Albert says:

        It doesn’t look like backing away to me. In addition to registering ‘christmas lectures’ they now claim ownership of any event with is named ‘[somewhere] christmas lecture. Their trade mark doesn’t seem to cover that: both ‘christmas’ and ‘lecture’ are common words and they can’t stop people from using them other than in the specific form which is trade marked. ‘Edinbirg Christmas Lectures’ (or even Royal Obsevatory Christmas lectures’) should be fine.

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    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.

    • RhEvans says:

      The highlighted paragraph, as you say Mike, makes it pretty clear than one can describe an event as a “Christmas Lecture” or “Christmas Lectures” without infringing any registered trademark. Does this mean to RI didn’t seek any legal advice before issuing their decree? Or that their lawyer didn’t know the relevant legislation?

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        I think they simply got it wrong on many levels. At this point, both backing down and digging their heels in will be embarrassing, but hopefully they realize that the former will do a lot less long-term damage.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        I should add that the trade mark still offers useful protection to the RI: if someone came out with a series of “Christmas Lecture” branded scientific toys, for example, they would have a very strong case, so there is definitely merit in having the trade mark. It just isn’t a credible mechanism for taking over Christmas science outreach.

      • davecl says:

        A friend of mine who is an Intellectual Property barrister doesn’t think this claim has a leg to stand on as it is a generic term.

        What the RI is effectively doing is a protection racket here, under the empty threat of legal action they will likely lose.

  10. andyxl says:

    Okey dokey. Now I feel sorry for the RI again. Yet another attempt at creating an income stream has failed.

  11. […] Lectures”. I agree with the points made by Ian as well as others (see here and here). I find it quite offensive to the scientific and science communication communities to make it […]

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  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    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.

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