Who owns the TARDIS?

Doctor Who has hit the headlines for more than one reason recently. On the 50th anniversary of the British science-fiction TV show produced by the BBC, Stef Coburn, the son of one of the original writers of the show, has claimed ownership of rights in the TARDIS. For those of you who are not Whovians (i.e. fans of the show), the TARDIS is the time-travelling spaceship used by Doctor Who in the show and the exterior of which is a British police box from the 1970s.

Mr Coburn claims that the BBC used the TARDIS with the “informal permission” of his father, Anthony Coburn. The ownership of “the rights” passed to his mother upon the death of his father in the mid 70’s and she has recently passed ownership to him. Mr Coburn has now declared that he wants to “bring about the public recognition that should by rights always have been due, of my father James Anthony Coburn’s seminal contribution to Doctor Who, and proper legal recompense to his surviving estate”. He has asked the BBC to either stop using the TARDIS or pay what amounts to royalties for any use of the TARDIS since his father’s death when the “informal permission” expired.

What actual “rights” Mr Coburn claims is unclear but his statement has sparked a furore amongst Whovians who have striven to make their opinions known. What has become clear from the seemingly limitless comments, tweets, discussions and articles on the subject is that the concept of copyright is misunderstood by the majority of people.

The following should clear up some of the more common misconceptions being advanced:-

 It is not possible to protect an “idea”, only the outworking of an idea. This is done not only through copyright but depending upon the expression of the idea by design right, design registration, patenting, trade mark registration, etc.

 Copyright belongs to the author of the work, unless the work is created by an employee in the course of their employment or assigned in writing by the author to another party. Employment contracts may also have terms which allow authors to retain the copyright in.

 Copyright is an automatic right meaning that it does not have to be registered to exist. To enforce copyright you must be able to prove that you have an earlier right and that the potential infringer had the opportunity to be able to copy your work

It will be interesting to see what “the rights” Mr Coburn claims to have are and whether or not they can indeed be substantiated.

It is difficult to see how Mr Coburn could have claim to copyright in the expression of the idea of the TARDIS since Anthony Coburn appears to have written the first episode of Doctor Who based upon a concept provided to him by the BBC and the design for the exterior of the TARDIS was based upon a police box which was prevalent at the time of creating the series.

Additionally, if Anthony Coburn was employed by the BBC and the idea was developed in the course of that employment then, unless his contract stated otherwise, the copyright would automatically belong to the BBC.

The BBC are investigating but, in this author’s opinion, the TARDIS will be around for a long time yet. Perhaps Mr. Coburn would have been better served taking a ride in the time-machine to ascertain the eventual outcome of his law suit which would save all parties a lot of time and unnecessary expense.

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