PR company copyrights “radical media”, threatens to sue activists
This post first appeared at eatanicecream.com
Radical media has a long history in social movements, from The British Worker, launched during the 1926 TUC General Strike, via audio cassettes with subversive messages passed around during the Iranian revolution, the Zapatistas, Samizdat and Indymedia to blogs, Facebook and Twitter used during the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Faced with a corporate media focused on maintaining the status quo, social movements have for years been concerned with creating their own media as a platform to express their ideas as well as to avoid, subvert and challenge dominant power structures.
The term ‘radical media’ itself also has a long history. For example, in 1983, media scholar John Downing published the first edition of his book Radical Media: Rebellious media and social movements, exploring the history of social movements’ use media – ranging from dance and graffiti, to video and the internet, culture-jamming, subversive art, performance theatre and underground radio. In the book he outlines ten criteria for what constitutes radical media. I won’t go through them all here, but one in particular sticks in my mind:
Radical, alternative media has one thing in common. It is that they break somebody’s rules.
I’d been planning to attend the Radical Media Conference, organised by Peacenews in October and was really surprised to see that the event title was recently changed to the ‘Rebellious Media Conference’. I thought it was strange given the well-known history of the term ‘radical media’.
Yesterday I found out why the conference title had been changed.
It turns out that a corporate advertising company calling themselves @Radical Media LLC has trademarked the term and has sent a threatening cease and desist letter to the organisers saying:
It has come to our attention that you are using the RADICAL MEDIA trademark to advertise a conference to be held in central London on 8th and 9th October 2011. This conference is not an event licensed by @radical and you will therefore appreciate that your use of the RADICAL MEDIA registered trademark constitutes an infringement and passing-off of @radical’s valuable intellectual property rights.
@radical does not take lightly any misuse of its intellectual property, unauthorised association with their programs of with itself and any possible damage to the reputation, goodwill and earnings of the same.
Accordingly, we therefore require that you immediately cease all use of the RADICAL MEDIA trademark to promote your conference, that you remove and destroy all offending materials from distribution and from all websites developed for your use (including Facebook and Twitter pages) and that you confirm to us in writing that this has been done.
Unsurprisingly, the organisers were shocked and surprised. This is what they write in a blog post:
Our collective jaws dropped, how could anyone own an adjective? Yet in the closed-source world where intellectual property is hard currency, it appears that virtually anything may be trade-marked. We didn’t know whether to rant or cry. Our instincts told us that anyone with a radical bone in their body should fight this corporate usurpation of language, but the prospect of facing legal costs in line with house prices tempered this instinct. Even if we won such a battle we could only expect to recover 75 percent of these costs, leaving us tens of thousands of pounds down, money which – even if we had it – should be spent on more useful, more radical things than legal fees.
A corporate company like @Radical Media LLC has nothing to do with radical media. It makes adverts for companies like Schweppes, IBM and Vodafone. It doesn’t break anybody’s rules. It’s not small-scale. It doesn’t aim to break down power structures. This is the extreme end of corporate globalisation and we must resist it.
On Tuesday 3 May (Word Press Freedom Day), at 5pm, a demonstration entitled ‘We make radical media, you make adverts’ has been called outside @Radical Media’s offices, London W1T 7AA. It would be great if we could get as many people to come down as possible. There’s a Facebook event to invite people to here. To show your support, please also blog, tweet, forward and link to the story. Also, why not let @radicalmedia know what you think on Twitter or by email? Or you could phone or email the person who sent the threatening letter, Joan C Aceste. Her number is +1 212 462 1500 and her email address is email@example.com.
Campaign after campaign has shown that it is possible to shame companies into changing their policies. We need to tell @Radical Media LLC that groups that work on genuine radical media projects must be allowed to talk about what they do using a normal phrase.
We emailed John Downing about it. This is what he had to say:
As the author of Radical Media (Boston, Mass., 1984), and the second revised edition by the same title in 2001 (Los Angeles, Calif., 2001), both multiply cited in a variety of nations across the planet ever since, it is patently ridiculous and, if persisted with, actionable, for this entity to attempt to hijack my title and exclude legitimate organizations from using it in the public realm. I will enjoy engaging in legal action to forestall their consummate arrogance.
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Dr Johnson, “The Rambler, number 171 (published 1751):
“I have heard of barbarians, who, when tempests drive ships upon their coast, decoy them to the rocks that they may plunder their lading, and have always thought that wretches, thus merciless in their depredations, ought to be destroyed by a general insurrection of all social beings; yet how light is this guilt to the crime of him, who, in the agitations of remorse, cuts away the anchor of piety, and, when he has drawn aside credulity from the paths of virtue, hides the light of heaven which would direct her to return. I had hitherto considered him as a man equally betrayed with myself by the concurrence of appetite and opportunity; but I now saw with horrour that he was contriving to perpetuate his gratification, and was desirous to fit me to his purpose, by complete and radical corruption.”
It’s an essay about prostitution.
“Patently ridiculous”. Nice pun there from Downing!
They’ve got themselves more publicity and recognition than they would otherwise have done i.e. “good PR” From the comments above it seems they would have no hope at all if they were to sue – though they might try it to gain more “good PR” However, that would not work if they were to lose any case, which seems inevitable.
Simple solution change their trade mark to include the “@” . So it would be trade marked as “@Radical Media”
My gut says that they can successfully sue someone for using the term “@Radical” or another advertising company that attempted to call themselves “Radical Media Inc” or other variations which cause clear confusion in the marketplace.
Trademarking adjectives isn’t unusual – but trademarks are there to protect against marketplace confusion and to safeguard the effort a company puts into branding. There’s nothing wrong with this, and nothing wrong with protecting your mark. You shouldn’t have to make up a brand new word just to acquire protection. However: that protection doesn’t extend to industries you’re not involved in, and when a term is already in common use *in* your industry (if they want to say they’re a ‘media company’ versus an ‘advertising company’) it becomes especially difficult to enforce.
The title is wrong. Copyright has nothing to do with this; it’s all about trademarks.
You know what’s radical? Threatening people with lawsuits for infringing on your trademarks. These people don’t deserve the right to use the name.
The trade mark is @Radical Media LLC in its entirety. Since that wasn’t used, just the words Radical Media, which are in common use and have a long history, as you point out, I see no offence here.
Usually a number of topics on this blog just annoy me but I am fully behind this campaign. I really hate it when corporate bodies try to trademark pre-exiting terms and movements as their own.
You cannot trademark a phrase in common use without having some evidence that when the phrase is used people automatically associate it with the trademarking business: “either your trademark must be inherently distinctive, identifying you as the source of a product, or your trademark must have acquired distinctiveness—you must prove that the public identifies your trademark with your particular good or service and with you as the source of that good or service.”
That won’t hold true in the UK. Ergo it would be almost unenforcable. I suggest people simply write back to them or find a friendly lawyer who will do so on their behalf.
‘Media’ is hardly a distinctive term in the field of media and ‘radical’ has political connotations here that go back to John Wilkes and Thomas Paine. Perhaps they should try trademarking ‘conservative media’ and see how they get on. Challenge it.
Just wanna say: “I will enjoy engaging in legal action to forestall their consummate arrogance.” is the best quote we’ve EVER had on Bright Green.
I have just taken a look at their godawful website. Really Nathan Barley…
“I will enjoy engaging in legal action to forestall their consummate arrogance.”
Best of luck to him; I hope it works out.
I’ve passed your details on to the organisers of the conference and to John Downing.
There are limits on trade marks. My gut is that they should take legal advice, and if they’re confident of it, ignore the letter. It is only a threat. Be great if they could get in touch!