NYC Shuts Down Muni T-Shirt Maker in a Major WTF
Photo by Flickr user joe.moore
You might’ve noticed a nice little Muni merchandise post Eugenia did for us the other day. I liked it. I like seeing creative people do their creative stuff and possibly make a little bit of moolah off it. I also like poking fun at things like struggling public transportation agencies. Sometimes, the two go well together.
Like in the case of the 40withegg blogger. This guy made a set of shirts with the letter logos of Muni’s Metro trains, substituting words like “Judah” or “Church” with words that match the route’s letter, like “T-ardy,” and mocked Muni. (see image, above.) Good, clean fun, right?
Not according to CafePress, where 40withegg meant to sell some shirts. Before he closed a single deal, CafePress took his wares down, citing a cease-and-desist letter it received from … New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency.
New York City? WTF, indeed! Is this a case of transcontinental, inter-agency FAIL?
In case you were curious, here is what the New York subway route bullets look like:
Our Muni route bullets look like this:
Thx: Plug1 for story tip
So if NY MTA thinks it owns the look of “letter-in-a-color-circle,” does that mean that SFMTA has been infringing on NY MTA all this time? Sounds pretty ridiculous to me.
Yikes! there go our plans for a Muni Diaries redesign 😉
(Captcha: cupcake Times!!!!!!!!!)
Oh boy. Send in the British Bobbies.
The New York MTA sells a ton of shirts and other merchandise emblazoned with the dots and typography from its subway signage, it’s not a shock that they’d feel threatened if anybody tried selling their own similar designs via CafePress or Zazzle or wherever. It’s also not a shock that CafePress would roll over immediately and shut the store down, they’re pretty quick to fold when someone asserts copyright protection.
The dots were designed for the NY subway system in the 60s by Massimo Vignelli, MUNI only lifted the design a few years ago. I’m sure NY doesn’t care so long as MUNI doesn’t start a t-shirt line.
Cafe Press and similar won’t sell anything that they remotely think constitutes a copyright/trademark violation, which includes artwork that features various artists’ likenesses, no matter how artistically re-created. Hence why I’m not selling any “Tori Amos Has a Posse” or “Debbie Gibson Did It” gear, despite having designed such gear. Actually, the problem is that Cafe Press can get in trouble since they get a cut of sales, even if you’re selling wares at cost.
Now I really really want one of the T shirts. Is there a way to get one?
Hello, everyone, and thank you for your support! It’s good to know that everyone is as flabbergasted at the NY MTA’s lack of understanding of the law when it comes to satire. Fair use, anyone?
Let’s hope Zazzle is more resonable than CafePress: http://www.zazzle.com/phallen/gifts?cg=196989349771248797
BTW — I’m still creating the shirts so if you don’t see your MUNI line then check back later!
Interesting that the photo you selected for the MTA happens to be for the most screwed up station in that system. For the uninitiated, it’s an asymmetric station. You can transfer from the downtown 6 to the B, D, F, or V, but you can’t do the reverse — transfer from the B, D, F, or V to the uptown 6.
I’m not so sure that the MTA has the law wrong, unfortunately. That’s not, of course, to say that they should be chasing you about it. Trademark fair use is a tricky argument to make, especially when commercial use is involved. Just calling something a parody or satire doesn’t make it so, and it’s not the end of the analysis in any event.
I’m certainly no lawyer, but in this case, wouldn’t MTA have to issue a cease-and-desist to SFMTA also? I mean, they use the ever-so-creative letter-in-a-colored-circle logo, too.
The attorney who sent 40withegg the C&D letter is the very same attorney who took on a bagel shop ( http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/29/5/29_05bklynangle.html ), a photographer selling prints of pictures he took on the subway because the route bullet is a part of the image (http://www.flickr.com/groups/laprotest/discuss/72157621582231804/), and a bakery selling cookies with frosting designed in the shape/colors of the route bullets…
If only the MTA spent as much time and effort in repairing its tunnels and not letting the roof cave in ( http://wahi.typepad.com/the_streets_where_we_live/2009/08/1-train-service-repair-update—subway-now-closed-from-137th-street-to-dyckman.html )
As for the revenue the MTA gets from licensing these products – a recent news report stated that they made a whopping $200,000. I wonder how much they spent in legal fees and resources chasing down so-called infringement.
Also of note is that the “N” bullet that was the issue here is registered in the USPTO specifically as a “black N in a yellow circle”…
The bagel story is really interesting. What would have constituted “enough” to alleviate the (imaginary) confusion? Did they really need to flip the bullets backwards? What if they had, say, rotated them 45 degrees counter-clockwise, or 20 degrees, or 5 degrees? When is the same not the same?
Success! The SF Weekly picked up my story ( http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2009/09/nycs_mta_says_they_own_the_mun.php ), made some phone calls to the NY MTA, and verified they “have no claim on Muni’s icons,” and “would need to look into the specifics of this case in greater detail to determine why the letter may have been sent.” In addition, the NY MTA states that the “images on Mr. Moore’s blog did not appear to show anything that would represent a trademark violation against the New York MTA.”
Thanks again everyone for your support!