This business with the Office of the UK Secretary of Defense turns out to be stranger than I thought. Esquire found several links, shown below, that shed interesting light on the affair. It appears that red, white, and blue roundels have been a popular fashion accessory in England for quite some time (remember the Mods, the 1960s, and the Who?). Recognizing this, the Office has been making what can only described as an extremely belated attempt to prevent clothing stores from using this emblem. Their website suggests this is intended to protect the dignity of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, but one of their spokesman rather gave the game away when she ‘admitted the MoD was also interested in the commercial potential of owning the trademark.’
There two ironies to this situation. First, the RAF doesn’t even use that insignia. It was retired sometime before WW-II in favor of one with red, white, blue, and yellow circles, but apparently England’s classical education system no longer includes that bit about Aesop, dogs, and mangers. Second, the RAF quite clearly lost this one. In a landmark legal decision back in 2004, the UK Patent Office said, in effect, “Sorry chaps, but Pete Townsend and his lads beat you to it. You can’t claim trademark protection for that ‘target device’ when it’s used on clothing.” Then, to drive the point home, the judge ordered them to pay the majority of the court costs. The decision is worth reading. Beneath all the dry legal wording, one cannot help but suspect the magistrate was struggling not to laugh, particularly in clauses 71 and 72.
This hasn’t stopped the Office from fighting a futile rear-guard action in defense of other consumer goods. As of 2009, they were trying to prevent the Next department store chain from selling boy’s bedspreads marked with those threatening WW-I roundels. Wow! Judging from the commentary this produced, I suspect the attempt has caused far more damage to the ‘dignity of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces’ than commercial sales of some a retired military insignia ever could. (“Never have so many laughed so hard at so few,” etc.)
Why, then, did they come after our t-shirts when the UK legal system had already decided against them? It’s possible they felt the UK decision might not apply in the US, but a more likely explanation is official harassment. There might well be some hapless underclerk whose job it is to search the Internet for sellers like Zazzle, who can be counted on to a) not know about the decision in question and b) be unwilling to fight back, and jump all over them. After spending quite some time at an organization that has forgotten more about bureaucracy than the Office of the UK Secretary of Defense will ever know, and also flew much faster aircraft (Panavia Tornado: Mach 2.2. Space Shuttle: Mach 23. Neener neener neener), I’m not too terribly curious about the matter. But I cannot help but wonder how they find… ahem… ‘targets’ for their ill-fated crusade. Do they pay staff to search millions of Web sites by hand? Do they have a Roundel Watch program for anonymous informers? Or do they have some pattern recognition software — which can’t be very well-written if it confuses grey insignia with red, white, and blue ones — that searches the Web for… drum roll please… illicit circles?