Warning: the image above may get you sued by the New York Port Authority. We have long discussed the insane evolution of trademark and copyright laws. Now, Fishs Eddy, a housewares store in Manhattan, has been hit with a cease-and-desist letter from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) over dishes that merely show the skyline of the city. The MTA claims that the common silhouette of the city includes some of its “assets” and that the store must destroy all of its products with the images and promise never again to sell images of the skyline. It is reminiscent of the English decision finding that taking photographs of London icons are also violations. Here the authority is claiming ownership to skyline images and 9-11 images even in silhouette.
I have long been a critic of growing copyright and trademark claims over things occurring in public or common phrases or terms. (For a prior column, click here). We have often discussed the abusive expansion of copyright and trademark laws. This includes common phrases, symbols, and images being claimed as private property. (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). (For a prior column, click here). This included recently a New York artist claiming that he holds the trademark to symbol π. —pi followed by a period—a design.
In this case, the target receives a threatening letter from on July 24th from Veronica Rodriguez, a lawyer for the authority, telling them that “Your use of the Port Authority’s assets on dinnerware and other items is of great concern to the Port Authority.” She then stated they must “destroy all materials, documents and other items bearing the assets.”
All the store is doing is selling two lines of goods — “212 New York Skyline” and “Bridge and Tunnel” that include cartoon like image of the twin towers, the new 1 World Trade Center and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. Rodriquez insisted that the store is “unfairly reaping a benefit from an association with the Port Authority and the attacks” of Sept. 11. She added that Fishs Eddy ceramic ware “interferes with the Port Authority’s control of its own reputation.”
In addition to be facially absurd to anyone outside of the draconian copyright and trademark fields, the store has been selling these items for 13 years. It is unclear why the authority waited 13 years to rouse itself over the “212” pattern or why it has chosen to go after an established merchant when the city is awash with unauthorized World Trade Center knickknacks. (Holland and Lincoln Tunnel souvenirs, maybe not so much.)
Erica Dumas, a spokeswoman for the authority, said that similar trademark enforcement efforts had been undertaken and that Fishs Eddy was not being singled out. She otherwise deferred to the letter.
Julie Gaines, the co-owner with her husband, David Lenovitz, is quoted in the New York Times as saying that in 1998 Tishman Speyer Properties and the Travelers Group, owners of the Chrysler Building, sent a similar letter regarding the image of the Chrysler Building.
We have previously discussed how President Obama has repeatedly yielded to the “copyright hawks” who have steadily increased the penalties for copyright and trademark violations, including criminal penalties. Despite the abuse of average citizens by thuggish law firms and prosecutors, the Obama Administration continues to support draconian measures against citizens. The result is that firms may routinely send out these thuggish threats and claim ownership to such things as the skyline of New York city. It is small business and average people who are being victimized because they do not have any comparable lobby in Congress. Instead, members and the White House eagerly line up to increase penalties and yield more power in the area.
It is also important to note that these threats have an impact on free speech as well as artistic expression.
Of course, the port authority is not just another private corporation and it is actively seeking to threaten a business over the use of a basic image of the city. It should be enough to rally all New Yorkers against the authority and demand not just changes but discipline for those who approve this action.
[NB: The image above is listed as “Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.”]