Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Is the BBC trying to limit our freedom to criticise?

The BBC has sent a cease and desist 7 day notice to a site which I have contributed articles to the Secular thought for the Day.

Their main complaint is over the use their trademarked "Thought for the Day" in the title of this site. Now the whole purpose of this site was as a protest against the BBC limiting its choice of speakers in the "Thought for the Day" slot to people of faith. It is designed to present an alternative to this prejudiced and bigoted policy of our publicly owned broadcaster and to remind everyone that this public service is meant to cater to the needs of all not just a select few and certainly to support and encourage bigotry and prejudice.

Now we supposedly live in a civil liberal democracy where anyone can exercise their freedom of speech. Surely here this includes being free to criticise the national policy of a public body and this is what the existence of Secular Thought for the Day is about, both in name and content, quite deliberately.

Now any organisation is entitled to protect their trademarks and copyright and this certainly includes the BBC. However is this all they are doing? From their cease and desist notice:

Given that you are infringing our rights in the manner set out above, we now require you within the next seven days

  1. To remove from your website:
    • any reference to the phrase "Thought for the Day" and any similar phrases thereto;
    • any references to the phrase "Secular Thought for the Day", or any name similar thereto including but not limited to "Secular Thought for the Day";
    • any reference to any contributor to the programme "Thought for the Day" including but not limited to Anne Atkins, Lionel Blue, Rhidian Brook, Tom Butler, Akhandadhi Das, Richard Harries, Rob Marshall, Indarjit Singh, Angela Tilby or any names similar thereto;
    • any reference directly or indirectly to the controller of Radio 4 Mr Mark Damazer.
  2. To provide us with written undertakings concerning any future use of the materials referred to above at 1.
Well it is the case that this site is know as "Secular Thought for the Day" and this is probably infringing the BBC's trademarks and copyright so having to change the name say to "Today's Secular Thoughts" or "Secular thoughts today" or something might have to be done. That, not speaking as a lawyer, seems reasonable. Then they do say:
"or any name similar thereto including but not limited to "Secular Thought for the Day"

Still they cannot control the whole space. We shall see.

However this notice goes far further as how can this be a site to both present one angle on and be a hub to complaints about "thought for the day" without using the aforementioned phrase? How can anyone who searches for issues over "Thought for the Day" be prevented in finding such a site because it is barred from mentioning this phrase?

There are other sites that I found through this site. What about Platitude for the Day? This does not have "thought for the day" in the title of the site and it appears nowhere else. For example in it's about section it says:
The BBC's department of Religion & More Religion, recognises that only those who commune with their invisible magic friend can possibly have any morality. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and other amoral non-believers are therefore excluded from the pure and godly Platitude of the Day, broadcast Monday to Saturday at 07.45 (but obviously not Sundays). For your further edification and spiritual improvement, I therefore present these concise, bite-size summaries of the wisdom of their presenters.

I am guessing it has been forced to remove "Thought for the Day" from its site, which possibly explains why I never found it when I was searching on this topic in the past and was surprised it had existed for so long when I discovered via "Secular thought for the day". So presumably"Platitude for the Day" is not too similar to "Thought for the Day"?

Still the whole nature of that site's protest makes it impossible to avoid referring to all the contributors which it does every day - still this is one of the list of restrictions the BBC is trying to impose upon Secular Thought For the Day. Now, as far as I know, Secular Thought for the Day has made no reference to contributors but I d not see why not. I or anyone could be annoyed by a contribution on the BBC version and write a response referring to that contributor posted as a Secular Thought for the Day. The BBC wants to deny such an ability to complain and criticise?

Now when we go to Afterthought for the Day we get a quite different picture. In its about section it openly mentions the phrase Thought for the Day and so, presumably, has not been asked to cease and desist. It does say in this section:

I would be sorry to see Thought for the Day go (especially now I’ve set up this blog dedicated to it), but it has come under threat in the past. The British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society complained that it excluded non-religious views and consequently the BBC brought Richard Dawkins in to do his own one-off slot, providing an atheistic point of view on matters. Still, they stuck by their policy to include only religious commentators in the Thought for the Day slot. Amen to that.

Maybe this is why it is able to carry on this way?

Well the blog author is actually openly an atheist and has updated this section with a postscript:
Update:Having listened carefully to each Thought for the Day reading since August 2008, I am now very much of the opinion that it should be opened up to non-religious contributors. I have, like many others, contacted the BBC to say so.

So I wonder what his position is in relation to trademark and copyright infringement now?

A particular dubious and egregious argument in the BBC letter was:
Furthermore, we consider it wholly inappropriate that a website of this nature should be on the internet. Although you claim that your site is secular, the majority of our listeners, who have a faith perspective and regularly engage with the comments and ideas expressed by our programme, may encounter your site while searching for the genuine Thought for the Day website and be denied their uninterruped interlude of spiritual reflection.

The whole point of the protest is that the majority of your listeners here do not have a significant faith perspective or one at all, this is broadcast in a secular slot, not in a religious program where this argument might have some substance.

Part of the point of a protest is to draw attention of it to those who are unaware of it. The BBC wants to remove such a site from existing, let alone just prevent people accidentally finding it! As for their listeners being "denied their uninterrupted interlude of spiritual reflection" it is a matter of opinion as to which better serves to do this The BBC's Thought for the Day or our Secular Thought for the Day (written by amateurs) and Thought for the World (written by professional writers and this also refers to Thought for the Day have they been sent such a cease and desist letter too? ) Hey BBC why not let the listener/audience decide? Have their been complaints by anyone? If there have what are the complaints? Let us see if these are justified? Will the BBC allows us to exercise our freedom of speech to complain about these complaints if we think such complaints are not justified?

Now what if I created a delicious tag thought-for-the-day and labelled every article on that site with that tag (I just did for this for the BBC's contribution ot our Secular Thought for the Day)? Is this infringing their copyright? People all the time tag pages discussing films or shows critically or otherwise. I suggest we do this and on technorati and so on. And howabout using reddit/digg on articles to bring this to everyone attention (I am not on these services or would have done this for the Secular Thought for the Day post that triggered my response here).

It is one thing to ignore repeated complaints and protests and persist with a prejudiced and bigoted contributors policy on their own program. It is quite another and, especially as a publicly owned public service, to use any means possible to suppress discussion and complaints about its programming to the degree that they think that such sites should not exist on the internet!

I had wondered how important this issue was in the great scheme of things but after this attempt by the BBC on our (anyone can contribute) site Secular Thoughts for the Day it has shot up in my list and I hope it will in yours too. This is no longer about complaints about one program but about one of our national services and the key one to do with expressing free speech, abusing free speech by trying to suppress our free speech.


faithlessgod said...

P.S See my comment attached to the original article.

The Barefoot Bum said...

IANAL, and I'm American to boot, but AFAIK under American trademark law, you can't trademark a common phrase, and the only grounds for trademark infringement is if there is a reasonable risk of an ordinary person conflating allegedly infringing use with the legitimate use.

I think you have good reason to consult a lawyer.

More importantly, given that the BBC has explicitly demanded you forego criticism of its contributors, an outrageous violation of free speech, I think it's worth fighting them. If you don't fight, you have to give them everything they demand; if you do fight, give nothing up for free, including the use of your name.

Knitterman said...

As a resident of America (where peculiar dates abound), I can appreciate the posting of this information on this particular date. Observing the calendar while reading such news gives me reason to be grateful (once again) for free speech.

faithlessgod said...

Yea its April Fools, gotcha Barefoot Bum! :-)

Still what is interesting and gives it some credence is my comments about "Platitude for the Day" and the quote is legitimate. I wondered about whether the original posting was an April Fools joke and so checked that site where it is quite clear they have avoided using the phrase "thought for the day". Why else would they have done this? Unless they were conspiring with Secular T4TD on the joke? Unlikely there was no link to this site. Hmmm

So I was "had" for a short while but I guess in an unexpected fashion. Obviously no lawyer would permit the phrase "be denied their uninterruped interlude of spiritual reflection." (misspelling in original) or indeed include the whole of that paragraph that ends with this phrase, I quoted in the above post.

It was the chance of using this mysterious confirmation and so tying in another site that led me to write post this (and avoiding work of course).