Friday, 12 November 2010

TfL monopolises Routemaster bus design

It seems from reports that TfL (that's Transport for London, in case you haven't encountered it before: the successor body to London Transport, so I suppose it had to distinguish itself somehow) has applied to register the design of the new Routemaster bus that's supposed to be on our streets, replacing those horrible, completely unsuitable and lethal-to-cyclists "bendibuses", in 2012. Why?

What does TfL need registered design protection for, and how can it justify taking the rights in a design created by a participant in a competition? It's not an in-house design: if it were, that would make the situation a little more understandable. I expect the terms of the competition insisted on an assignment of all rights - I have drawn up competition rules containing such a clause, though not on this sort of scale - but, again, why? Because everyone believes in the magic properties of intellectual property, and are determined to have as much of it as possible.

Mayor Boris thinks that there will be demand from elsewhere for these new buses, so TfL should be able to earn some nice royalties. Some commentators seem to doubt that: other cities are a bit more suited to bendibuses, for example. What if someone starts making a bus that looks like the Boris Bus (as it might yet be called), so similar that it doesn't create a different overall impression - TfL will sue for infringement of their registered design, I suppose, and perhaps fares will have to go up to fund the litigation. Either that or they'll have to take out before the event insurance, and the fare-paying public can pay the premiums.

Why didn't they leave the rights with the designer, and let him enforce them if anyone should happen to make a lookalike double decker bus (no small undertaking, I imagine!). Then they might have struck a better price for the work, given that the designer has the expectation, however optimistic, of selling the design elsewhere.

Why are emanations of the state such as TfL paying good money to collect intellectual property rights anyway? If the design work has been paid for by the public, what's the justification for enclosing it, bringing it into a form of private ownership? To enable TfL to exploit it? But TfL should get on with the task of running an acceptable level of transport services in London, not indulge in some ridiculous sideshow. They need to keep their corporate eye on the ball. It's like those Royal Marine Commando Community trade marks I commented on a while back, or the re-branding of the Patent Office - all completely unnecessary, and done (I imagine) at the taxpayer's expense. What we need to protect matters like those is something like Canada's "official marks" - the Patent Office already had something rather like that, which was almost surrendered when they rebranded. That deals with the need for these public bodies to register trade marks: as for bus designs, I see no justification whatsoever.

There's one ray of light, though. To be validly registered, the new design has to make a different overall impression compared with the prior art. It looks so like a real, much-lamented Routemaster that it might well fail to clear that hurdle.

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