Westminster City Council privatises street sign design

8 April 2008

Westminster City Council privatising culture street sign

Westminster City Council has taken a bold step today towards ending the misery of thousands of London tourists each year who buy counterfeit street sign souvenirs. The forward-thinking council has purchased the copyright to the design of its signs, created by notable designer Sir Misha Black in 1967.

The council has promised zero-tolerance enforcement of its new intellectual property, threatening fly-by-night design theives with heavy fines for selling unlicensed souvenirs.

Westminster Council’s Martin Low said, “In buying the copyright, we felt we needed to retain an element of control over the signs to maintain Westminster’s image as a world class tourist destination.”

The problem of the counterfeit signs – which are produced on everything from mugs to t-shirts to mouse mats – has ruined thousands of holidays and besmirched Westminster’s international reputation.

Tourist Mariella Bogus from Sacramento, California, said:

I paid £2.99 in good faith for a ‘Leicester Square’ fridge magnet from a street vendor, but it wasn’t until I got it home that I noticed that the font was wrong and the proportions slightly out of whack. Whatever the font’s meant to be it’s not sodding Arial and while I can’t afford a Pantone swatch book that red doesn’t look like the proper Westminster red either.

I emailed the council’s trading standards department who were very sympathetic but said that there was nothing they could do. Thank goodness that’s all changing now and people like me will get the protection we deserve from these unscrupulous hawkers. Now I feel that I can go back to London and shop safely again.

Souvenir sellers have until the end of the month to buy a licence from Westminster Council or face the full might of the law.

At the risk of descending into cliché, this is intellectual property gone mad.

Copyright law provides a creators' monopoly so that people or organisations wanting to create works for profit retain the incentive to do so. Professional creators and publishers need this protection and without it their work can immediately be exploited by others, including those who may be able to profit more easily from the work. But step outside the realm of work created for profit and the concept of a creators' monopoly becomes a nonsense, as it is here.

Now that Westminster Council owns the copyright to this design the most sensible way forward would be to forget about licencing, trading standards investigations, courts and lawyers. Just release the design into the public domain and spend your time on something more important to local taxpayers. The council will be able to keep using the design on its signs and the souvenir makers will be able to carry on their trade as they have always done without doing anyone any harm. The world is unlikely to stop turning.

The notion that enforcement of this copyright could ultimately land someone in jail for non-payment of fines for selling unlicenced t-shirts of street signs shows the gross lack of proportionality of this measure.

Council officers and the courts will be able to spend their time and our money better than by enforcing the copyright in a design which wasn’t produced for profit, whose designer was presumably well rewarded and has been dead since 1977, which has served and continues to serve its public purpose admirably and the “infringement” of which has gone unprosecuted for four decades without anyone seemingly coming to harm.

Whichever politician or council officer dreamed up this ludicrously pettifogging scheme needs to think long and hard about why they went into public service in the first place. They’re changing the world – but not for the better.

More recycled press releases incisive reporting on this story from the Mirror, 24dash and Building.

UPDATE 9 April: Design Week are reporting that Westminster Council paid £50,000 for the copyright.

Interestingly, they go on to say:

Chief executive of Anti Copying in Design Dids Macdonald recommends the council charges a ‘nominal’ licence fee ‘Otherwise it is putting an intellectual property straitjacket around an iconic piece of design,’ she says.

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