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String Theory

Fans of the British TV series Doctor Who are still debating the details of last Saturday's season finale -- as well as the BBC's controversial enforcement of its intellectual property rights in the show.  And they're not just talking about downloads and DVDs.

It seems that grannies in the U.K. have given up knitting tea cosies and are instead turning out Doctor Who scarves and plush replicas of the various aliens whom the Doctor encounters in his travels.  Since both crafters and science fiction fans are communal types, it's not surprising that patterns for these projects have appeared online, further encouraging the proliferation of DIY knockoffs.  While the BBC is state run, it still has a keen eye on potential profits from merchandising -- and thus cease & desist letters have followed. 

The fiber arts brigade has, of course, questioned both the BBC's judgment -- why anger the fan base? -- and its legal statements.  Is it really illegal to knit your own Adipose baby or peaceful Ood?  Or to take up needles and recreate other TV characters or their signature wardrobe pieces?

From a copyright perspective, it's a knotty problem.  Characters can be protected by copyright, and thus a knitted version would constitute an infringement.  And if the knitted version is an infringement, then distributing a pattern online might very well constitute contributory infringement -- after all, the instructions enable others to knit their own unauthorized copies.  On the other hand, versions of the scarf worn by Tom Baker, the fourth actor to play the Doctor (1974-1981), may not be subject to copyright, since U.K. law protecting fashion designs at the time was far more limited than it is now.  Today, however, original items in a character's wardrobe would be more likely to enjoy copyright protection -- though a striped scarf might still be too generic to qualify.  (In the U.S., characters' wardrobe items would still be unprotected in almost all cases -- although animated characters would have a distinct copyright advantage over their live counterparts.)

As for trademark, relatively few characters are actually registered or used to indicate the source of tie-in products, but the name of a TV series certainly would be.  Thus any use of the name in a trademark manner -- "Buy your handmade Doctor Who toys/scarves here!" -- would constitute an infringement. 

So unless you're prepared to use those knitting needles as deadly weapons, it may be best to hide behind the sofa when that C&D arrives. 

Adipose babies


Thanks to my esteemed colleague, a lifelong Doctor Who fan, for suggesting insisting upon this post!  (It was this or knit him a scarf....)