Sunday, 10 November 2013

Anthony Coburn's son suing BBC over TARDIS copyright

"Ceci n'est pas une TARDIS."
According to the Independent. "Mr Coburn's son [Stef Coburn] claims that the BBC has been in breach of copyright since his father's death in 1977. He has demanded that the corporation either stop using the Tardis in the show or pay his family for its every use since then. Stef Coburn claims that upon his father's death, any informal permission his father gave the BBC to use his work expired and the copyright of all of his ideas passed to his widow, Joan. Earlier this year she passed it on to him."

According to Coburn, "It is by no means my wish to deprive legions of Doctor Who fans (of whom I was never one) of any aspect of their favourite children's programme. The only ends I wish to accomplish, by whatever lawful means present themselves, involve bringing about the public recognition that should by rights always have been his due, of my father James Anthony Coburn's seminal contribution to Doctor Who, and proper lawful recompense to his surviving estate."

"The BBC says it is looking into the complaint, but that there have been no challenges to the copyright since it registered it in the 1980s. Mr Coburn says he would have taken action earlier had he owned the rights...To mark the show's birthday, the BBC will show a one-off dramatisation of how the programme came to be created. Mr Coburn said he was "extremely angry" that the programme excludes his father."

There's a welter of issues here. It is true that Anthony Coburn came up with the idea of the police box disguise for the TARDIS, but he certainly didn't invent the time travel machine concept - that was set in stone long before Coburn came on the scene - and Anthony technically didn't create the police box either, which was trademarked to the Metropolitan Police. Who had a much better claim to copyright when they tried suing in the 90s and still ended up having to pay expenses to the BBC (no, we can't quite account for why the BBC statement says there's not been a challenge before, although it's paraphrased so they may simply have meant there'd never been a challenge from a Coburn before.) A court might very well throw the case out simply for exceeding any reasonable statue of limitations, as indeed the court did in the Metropolitan police case. Presuming that Coburn senior could have established a copyright at all, which wasn't necessarily the case for BBC writers who were often asked to hand over rights to their ideas and characters as a matter of course. In fact, it's rather difficult to figure out from this article what exactly Stef Coburn thinks he can establish rights to. Perhaps just the TARDIS acronym? Because if the UNIT dispute with the United Nations was anything to go by, the BBC will just invent a new backronym and use that instead, and at long last fandom will have that dispute about whether it's "relative dimensions" or "dimension" settled once and for all.

It's clear that "An Adventure in Space and Time" has Stef Coburn fairly irritated and this may be at the root of the matter, especially if the lawsuit really is more about publicity than money (that "pay up for every appearance of the TARDIS ever" is simply not going to happen). Gatiss is an ardent fanboy, but this is a special rather than a miniseries and there was quite a bit of compression. David Whitaker had a lot more to do with shaping the show than Anthony Coburn did and Gatiss didn't have room to squeeze him in properly either (or Raymond Cusick, or Ron Grainer, or Terry Nation...). Regardless, it's understandable that Stef Coburn would like the general public to know about his father more, but this seems an awfully drastic way of garnering attention. Given that everyone was so enthusiastic about the rediscovery of Anthony Coburn's scripts earlier in the year, it's interesting that we've gone so quickly from that atmosphere of good will to outright hostility.

If you believe Ian Levine, who isn't necessarily to be taken as an authoritative source, this is merely the first public action that Stef Coburn has taken and he's been registering complaints behind the scenes to the extent of trying to block the BBC's broadcast of "An Unearthly Child" as part of the Anniversary Celebrations. Y'know, the one story that Anthony Coburn wrote that was actually broadcast. Curious way of trying to help bring about public recognition for his father, if it's true.

We tried finding out something about Stef Coburn generally, and a casual perusal of the Internet reveals this resume website. He's been trying to break into script writing: "I have recently shifted my focus to writing fiction in both prose and scripted form. In doing so in my fifties, far from starting out afresh needing to acquire fundamentally new skills I am 'activating' and seeking application for the protracted training I received from an early age from my father."

"As the eldest offspring of (James) Anthony Coburn, (who, in 1963 wrote the first ever televised 'Doctor Who' story, in the course of which he both selected the 'police box' exterior for the 'Doctor's machine/ship and personally composed the acronym TARDIS) I was raised, whether I liked it or not, steeped in my father's unremitting 'masterclass' from age seven to twenty-one."

The rest of it goes on in that vein. As proof of his credentials and ability to write, he has uploaded...a spec script for Voyager done in 1995. Which he describes thusly: "This was my first ever attempt at script-writing, to which I put down the fact of having initially set out to write a single episode story, but vastly overestimated the amount of dramatic detail I could possibly deal with in even two such episodes. As long as it is, the story has no 'padding' whatsoever, it proved simply too large to be jammed into even it's present two part format without the substantial curtailment of one major sub-plot and the virtual amputation of another. In its original conception it would work far better as a three episode story, allowing the dramatic space for its 'epic' scale to properly unfold."

[Sic]. Do forgive the Combom team for not reading all one hundred and sixty nine pages of script to ascertain its full literary merit or lack thereof. Should you wish to read his Twitter, it is to be found here. There is a great deal of text about how fond he is of Star Trek and his credentials as a Trekker, the way that he didn't actually get on with his dad very well at all, his plans to do a documentary that will prove how inaccurate Gatiss' docudrama is, and a request that Doctor Who fans write in to his Twitter to talk about how the show has affected their love-lives.

No, really. You've got as much information as we do now, so come to your own conclusions about the merits of this lawsuit and whether it has a chance of threatening our much-beloved show.

(Personally, we wouldn't worry overmuch.)


PaulAspel said...

He sounds like a very bitter man, not particularly talented person who is forever stuck in he shadow of his farther, and will never produce anything of any note or significance.

Ethan Shanks said...

I still dont understand, but the Police Box's were a real life, non fictional thing...I dont see why he has to sue the BBC for a public object. I mean c'mon there's one in the middle of London!

Andy said...

True, But someone still had to design them

gbollard said...

What a moron. His dad was an Aussie but he isn't. If he gets Doctor Who stopped, he's gonna have a legion of angry fans on his doorstep.

The shape can change, though preferably not with Colin Baker at the controls and the TARDIS acronym was made up by Susan. It's actually a SIDRAT from the War Games.

Also, the words "Doctor Who - Voyager" are copyright to Steve Parkhouse in 1984 so he owes Mr Parkhouse a fiver for everyone who read the title of his script. So there. :-P

shawnadam said...

According to Wikipedia,, in 1996 the BBC tried to trademark the police box. The Metropolitan Police responded that they held the trademark. The court responded in the favor of the BBC, because the BBC had been using the police box for over 30 years, without anything brought up before. They also said that the design of the police box was never registered by anyone.

Crazie Flawed Narcissistic-Vam said...


Mo86 said...

Ugh, that's why I normally try to avoid behind-the-scenes info on my favorite shows. There's always some ugly real life bit that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.