The Empire Struck Back

I thought the RAF roundel was red, white, and blue, not grey.  How do they know this wasn't the Bolivian Air Force?
On March 28, 2012… a day that will live in incredulity… the Office of the UK Secretary of State for Defense contacted Zazzle and ordered them to remove merchandise from the Flying Cloud Store because it ‘references the Royal Air Force’. Apparently they objected to the tiny WW-I roundels on the airships. This objection even extended to the design shown above. (At least I believe this was one of the images in question. I don’t want to claim absolute certainty lest I risk some accusation of libel by an organization armed with nuclear weapons!) I leave it to you to decide the extent to which this particular graphic ‘references the Royal Air Force’, but it’s difficult to escape the impression that some low-ranking servant of the Crown has too much time on his hands :)

This rather disappointing behavior by an organization for which I retain considerable admiration and respect raises several questions.

1) What about the millions of other products in the world that ‘reference the Royal Air Force’, such as photo albums, air show t-shirts, warbird calendars, plastic models, computer games, and the like? What about Microsoft Flight Simulator? What about the estate of Charles Shultz? Why don’t they go after those? It’s difficult to imagine a more direct commercial reference to the RAF than Snoopy and the Red Baron. Surely we can expect a bit more consistency from a nation that prides itself as one of the birthplaces of reason! Unless… dare I say it… they lack the courage to attempt targets of that magnitude and must content themselves with smaller fry such as myself.

2) Does the Office of the UK Secretary of State for Defense actually have some junior civil servant whose job it is to search vendors like Zazzle to eliminate the dire threat to the Crown posed by amateur graphics that could, by some distant stretch of the imagination, be taken to reflect unfavorably on Her Majesty’s armed forces? That would be way cool! I want a job like that!

3) Will they go after The Flying Cloud itself? Will my ISP receive an email to the effect that they must shut down the adventures of Captain Everett and his crew or they can expect an air strike as soon as the relevant ministry can work this into the budget?

I’m not particularly worried about the Zazzle items because they weren’t exactly major sellers, but this latter question is a matter of some concern. Since my own air assets are limited to a hang glider, a paraglider, and a sling, I may not be in a position to stand up to a major airborne assault, or even an over-ambitious barrister. This suggests that some preemptive publicity might be in order. If you’re concerned about the possible threat to our favorite airship crew, spread the word, let other people know about this site, and help build support for the side of truth, justice, light, airships, adventure, gallant gentlemen, and sultry island maidens!


22 Responses to “The Empire Struck Back”

  1. Ben says:

    That’s hilarious.

    You’re are applying too much logic.

    That person was probably trying to help you out with publicity,
    after all any attention is good attention.

  2. Woody says:

    It would not surprise me if their next salvo included accusations of unauthorized use of the letter U following the letter O when the latter appears immediately previous to the letter R. It is, after all, the Queen’s English.

  3. jaasak says:

    You have GOT to be joking, right? It is, after all, April Fool’s Day: no self-respecting Englishman would lower him-/her-self to bother with a story of an alternate history of the Empire. One would think, in point of fact, that the Crown would be delighted with the Zazzle Store promoting the RAF and anything which, frankly, puts the Crown & its subjects in a much better light than I personally think it deserves.
    This is just too preposterous, Paulie. Please find the strength & the mercy to tell us you’re pulling our legs, okay? I just….I just…can’t believe some low-level buffoon would even bother with your sight. Gaaahhh!!!! JIM

  4. Paul Gazis says:

    Believe it or not, it’s true. My first thought was that someone from Monty Python must be responsible — Graham Chapman, perhaps. But then I remembered the fellow passed away in 1989…

  5. jaasak says:

    Paulie; I’ve posted this to my FB. I had to, 1) to promote your site and, 2) because as a US gov’t worker I’ve seen my share of nonsense but THIS takes the taco by every measure I’ve seen so far. Hope promoting your page helps. JIM

  6. Paul Gazis says:

    Thanks, Jim! I appreciate it!

  7. Andy says:

    I think this is pretty ridiculous.

    You would think our politicians had far bigger and massively more worthwhile issues to deal with than petty enforcement of obscure copyright issues against small-time entrepreneurs, but it seems not.

    Although it’s not like I had any respect left for the bunch of spoiled, selfish rich kids who currently have the job, considering just last week they went out and caused a fuel crisis so they had a distraction from the party funding chief being caught offering access to the prime minister for £250k.

  8. Andy says:

    oops, before I got annoyed I had meant to say that the office in question is not a direct part of the UK’s armed forces, but rather the part of the elected government that theoretically oversees them.

  9. Paul Gazis says:

    Thanks, Andy. I’m glad to learn that the office in question is not part of the RAF. It would be depressing to think that the few to whom so many owe so much could have become so small-minded. It’s a relief to know they weren’t involved.

    I’m not surprised to see bureaucrats behave in such fashion. One of my favorite examples was the spokesman at NASA who announced, some time after the Challenger tragedy (I wish I was making this up), “We used to launch Shuttles with open paperwork, but that is a thing of the past! From now on, we will never launch another Shuttle until all the paperwork is closed!”

    My first thought was, “That’s it? That’s the Final Frontier: humanity’s greatest adventure?” My second thought was, “Paperwork? Oooh, we’ll see what laws of physics have to say about that!”

    And we did. Alas.

  10. Esquire says:

    mind posting the actual demand letter/email?

    while IP isn’t my legal speciality, i do dabble a bit in it.

  11. Paul Gazis says:

    Unfortunately the original letter went to Zazzle. All I got was a note from them that the Office of the UK Secretary of State for Defense had whined about the t-shirts and coffee mug. I imagine that the chance of extracting the relevant email from them is approximately zero. This is also my rough estimate of the chances of persuading them to allow someone to argue on their behalf that an image is OK.

  12. B. R. Ashley says:

    Snoopy and the Red Baron? Nonono, the guy who shot down von Richtofen was in the RCAF, wasn’t he? Just like the fighter pilot who strafed Rommel’s staff car in ‘44 …

  13. Esquire says:

    ah. well.

    hopefully it ends there.

    i can tell you there is a significant difference between commercial items like the zazzle stuff, and fair use stuff like the art, your stories, etc. since you are ‘creating’ new material – that’s usually not a problem, commercialization is usually the issue. Digital Millennium copyright act requires some specific actions on behalf of the complaining party before ‘damages’ are possible.

  14. Dave H says:

    My guess (not that it’s worth much – I’m an engineer, not a lawyer, therefore I deal only with reality) is that your art represents fair use as satire. The commercial products, well, I think a strategic regrouping might be prudent.

  15. Paul Gazis says:

    Thanks, Esquire. After reading comments from yourself and others, I’m no longer particularly concerned about the site. But I’m still deciding what to do about the proposed EBook. The options include

    1) Leave the graphics as they are and see what happens. I must admit to some curiosity.

    2) Ask the relevant bureaucrats for permission to use their precious roundels. Members of my tribe have learned not to ask favors from people of that ilk.

    3) Change all the insignia to some variant of the Union Jack. This could be a pain, but as I’ve noted elsewhere, I always had mixed feelings about painting big red, white, and blue targets on airships :)

  16. Steve Sharp says:

    Why not just change the colours of the roundels? Perhaps you could use a white centre for example. After all, this does take place in an alternate universe and who is to say that teh Royal Navy in that universe had to come up with the same colour scheme as the Royal Flying Corps?

  17. Walshy says:

    Steve’s right, alternate universe, alternate roundels. just change the red for blue and vice versa.
    I live in Australia so I am well aware of bureaucracy gone crazy, it happens here all the time!

  18. Esquire says:

    using the roundels as before should be no problem. technically i think you could probably even sell them – but you’d probably have to go to court to clear that right – likely not worth the trouble. however, any ‘new use’, in art or text, should be unobjectionable even to this tin-plated person from the ministry. zazzle might simply be a easy target for him. i think he’ll have problems trying to remove the roundels from the stream of commerce, as 1/24 reproductions are easily available from ebay vendors.

    on related matters, the ministry attempted to secure a trademark for clothing in 2004, and was unsuccessful. story:
    denial by UK patent office:

    in conclusion, your use of the roundel mark in illustrations and fiction is probably defensible, but i’m not sure simple commercial use of reproductions of the mark worth the effort to defend if it became necessary.

  19. Esquire says:

    …. which might actually be the purpose of the official harassment, to prevent commerical usage other than purchasing the goods/gear from ‘official’ RAF outlet stores….

    when a government enters the marketplace as a ‘competitive’ player, good things are unlikely to happen.

  20. Paul Gazis says:

    Thanks, Esquire! I read the text of that denial and it was fascinating — a refreshing breath of reason after some of the IP issues I’ve seen in Silicon Valley. I’m sure you’re right about Zazzle being an easy target. Their business model is almost certainly, “Don’t even think of fighting these things.” I also notice, now that I know to search the Web for these things, that the Office of the UK Secretary of State for Defense seems to have what we crude fellows here in the States would call a ‘real bug up their [indelicacy]‘ when it comes to Mod clothing. An unfortunate lack of realism on their part. That aphorism about trying to shovel back the ocean with a fork leaps to mind…

    My only concern is that if I publish this as an eBook with the current graphics, Amazon (or whoever) might knuckle under in response to a similar bit of official harassment. Is it worth the hassle of photoshopping 200+ insignia to avoid this admittedly minor risk? Who knows?

    Of course, if the saga of Captain Everett and his crew becomes an international best-seller and we try to market t-shirts again…. that could get interesting :)

  21. thatdarncat says:

    Typical of a government that claims to have your best interests at heart.

  22. KenFletcher says:

    Paul (and all) –

    Esquire has sent you a link to a copy of the British Trademark judge’s denial of the “roundel” claim from the Ministry of Defence bureaucrats.

    That ‘denial’ in the early 2000s says a lot, because UK law does allow the ‘Crown’ its own version of perpetual copyrights for some material. And the recently negotiated trade treaties do allow more challenges to be made to copyrights and trademark use in other nations. But the ’roundel’ trademark claim for apparel was denied by the British courts.

    Please consider the possibility that the legal finding should be forwarded to Zazzle, with the pointed question of “Whether the correspondence from the Ministry of Defence made any claims that the trademark ‘denial’ ruling has been changed since that date?”

    It really does look like the natural consequence of claiming trademark control over a national symbol will lead to a demand for percentages of the sales of every United Kingdom aircraft painting (and art prints) ever done! That of course, moves into the absurd situation of demanding royalties for using the symbol in photographs and original created content in books and media.

    Best regards
    Ken Fletcher