1709 Blog: for all the copyright community

Monday, 11 November 2013

Who owns the TARDIS?


The First Doctor and the TARDIS
Stef Coburn, the son of the writer of the first  ever episode of the iconic British sci-fi series Dr Who, is launching a legal action against the BBC in the 50th anniversary year of the global success story. His father, Tony Coburn, wrote An Unearthly Child, the first episode of the serial which then featured William Hartnell as the Doctor, and created The Tardis - a time travelling machine - "the blue police phone box that is bigger inside than out". Coburn Junior now claims that the BBC is failing to give his father, who died in 1977,  "the public recognition that should by rights always have been his due" - not least for inventing the Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) time machine. He has demanded that the corporation either stop using the Tardis in the show or pay his family for its every use since its creation. He said: "It is by no means my wish to deprive legions of Doctor Who fans (of whom I was never one) of any aspect of their favourite children's programme. The only ends I wish to accomplish, by whatever lawful means present themselves, involve bringing about the public recognition that should by rights always have been his due, of my father James Anthony Coburn's seminal contribution to Doctor Who, and proper lawful recompense to his surviving estate." Interestingly the BBC own a 1976 UK registered Trade Mark in class 28 for the blue police box combining the word 'The Tardis' and an image of the box (UK00001068700), a 1988 mark for the words 'The Tardis', and a 1996 Community Trade Mark for the word 'The Tardis' in classes 09, 16, 25, 28 and 41.
The Tardis

Now I am only guessing, but I would have thought that Anthony Coburn would have assigned across any rights in his script at the time to the BBC. Tthat script obviously included the first description of the Tardis - itself based on a traditional British blue 'Police Box' on the outside. Stef Coburn has said that the Tardis's inspiration came from a walk on Wimbledon Common, in south-west London, when his father saw two blue police boxes. Struck by the alien sight, he says, Coburn was inspired to make them the physical basis of his fantastical machine. And since that first outing, as far as I have spotted, the inside of the time travelling box has changed radically with each new series and Doctor. So - a pre-existing design, the 'idea' of a time travelling box with a space defying interior - and a new interior. Who owns what ........... ? That remains to be seen.  The claim for a breach of copyright has inflamed the Twitter community, and a veritable legion of Dr who fans have rushed to rubbish the claims as, amongst other things, being "spurious". With the BBC owing their trade marks, and the recent decision in another 'sci-fi' case, Lucasfilm Limited v Ainsworth [2011] UKSC 39 where the Supreme Court held that no copyright subsisted in a replica 'Stormtrooper' helmet, it being a utilitarian item (a film prop) and not a sculpture that would attract full copyright protection, and a presumed assignment of the original script, leads me to wonder if Mr Coburn is heading for a Mission to the Unknown, rather than spreading the Seeds of Doom for Dr Who fans. It could be a Long Game.  


Smith, Hurt and Tennant
That said, Coburn Junior seems to be particularly upset that a programme made to mark the show's birthday about how the first programme came to be created doesn't feature his dad. Mr Coburn said he was "extremely angry" that the programme excludes his father. One can sort of see why if he was the writer, but the BBC said: "The film reflects on myriad issues behind the scenes of the production, and to ensure the strongest narrative possible focuses on the core team of Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, William Hartnell and Waris Hussein." But will that omission prove to be a costly mistake for the BBC, or just an somewhat insulting oversight? Coming Full Circle, an exhibition at Bradford's National Museum of Media, and a 50th anniversary special featuring David Tennant, Matt Smith (both Doctors) and John Hurt, which will be screened on BBC1 on the 23rd November,  are just some of the other events planned for the 50th anniversary.

1 comment:

Ben said...

An update in the form of a letter to The Times (13.11.13) from a Dr C G Down whose father worked in PR for the Metropolitan Police some fifty years ago. Dr Down tells the story of his father meeting executives from the BBC over lunch, who mentioned a children's sci fi series that was in development and involved a time machine, and Dr Cox says his father, Mervyn, 'flippantly' suggested the BBC used a Metropolitan Police Box. So they did! So the exterior design, interior design, and name of the Tardis all seem to belong to others , leaving just the concept of a time travelling space craft - and I think H G Wells may have some claim to the idea of a time machine, a phrase he coined back in 1895 - in his book of the same name - The Time Machine.