The New York Times’ article, “C Train Cafe? Transit Agency May Put Up Fight,” details the ongoing efforts of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to stop unauthorized use of its intellectual property. The organization has been issuing warnings to a variety of parties ranging from a roller derby team to street artists painting on the backs of Metro Cards. So far, it has already taken a deli named “F Line Bagels” to court and won. With the M.T.A.’s continuous legal struggles, one wonders where to draw the line when protecting intellectual property.
While I find this control wrong, I think the M.T.A. holds the upper hand. It holds trademarks to all its images. Legally, it has covered all its bases. Its copyright notice states, “No parts of this program, product, software, or item, including the look or feel. . . may be reproduced” (MTA.info). As long as the trademark is registered and the image’s use causes “confusion,” the M.T.A wins—penalties include a $200–$500,000 fine (Cornell: Trademark Infringement; Purdue: Copyright Infringement Penalties).
Still, the M.T.A. seems tyrannical. Writer, Laurence Lessig, states that resources are either rivalrous or nonrivalrous. A rivalrous resource is in limited supply, and there must be incentive to create it; therefore, there is good reason for it to be controlled. Nonrivalrous resources are unlimited but usually require control to give incentive to produce (The Future of Ideas). The M.T.A. has a unique situation in the fact that its images are both inexhaustible and not in need of an incentive to be produced. The M.T.A. needs neither supply nor incentive to produce images to function in transit. If all of New York wore an M.T.A. logo for a day, the M.T.A. would not lose money from transit.
The M.T.A.’s power over the masses brings to mind Immanuel Kant’s idea of “nonage”—a dependent state of helplessness. The authority has become such an all-powerful juggernaut that people rarely challenge it. Instead, people are led by the hand and refuse to “throw off the yoke of nonage” (What is Enlightenment?). The M.T.A.‘s success comes from its bully status. From large businesses to bloggers, it shows no mercy (NY Times; 2nd Avenue).
John Milton stated, ”Bookes are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are” (Areopagitica). With this in mind, could one generalize this quote to a particular image as well? Just as words define an author, an image is similar. I do not believe this is so with the M.T.A. While it’s reasonable to protect a business’ image, the M.T.A. enforces copyrights on images not explicitly expressing affiliation with itself—recently, it warned a company printing a subway map on a dress.
Protecting an image is one thing; mindlessly enforcing ownership is another.