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Anagrammed TTC Subway Map Pulled Due to Copyright Concerns

Robot Johnny’s modified Toronto subway map which featured anagrams of all the station stops, was pulled from Johnny’s website after the TTC issued a strongly-worded cease-and-desist order.

The TTC has not granted, and expressly denies, permission to you or the Website to reproduce or otherwise use TTC intellectual property in whole or in part. The TTC hereby demands that you immediately cease and desist from using TTC intellectual property on the Website, failing which the TTC will take appropriate legal actions without further notice to you.

Johnny has put up a modified version of his modified map which shouldn’t violate the TTC’s trademark, but the TTC’s move has not been popular among the Canadian blogosphere, even bringing up accusations of censorship from some quarters, such as the heavily-read Cory Doctorow.

I grew up riding the TTC, and the map is burned into my subconscious. It’s part of every Torontonian’s experience of the city, a part of the cultural fabric. Culture gets remixed — that’s what happens with it. Trademark is supposed to protect rightsholders from competitors who use their marks to confuse the public in the course of commerce. No one who saw RobotJohnny’s genius map would have confused it for a second with a real TTC map and sent him a subway token. The TTC’s legal bullying here is completely needless — they face no risk and no loss from letting their riders make turn the map into their own personal remix.

Torontonians go to bat for the TTC all the time, shouting at the province and the feds to beef up funding. We’ve put up with the disruption of the Sheppard Subway, we’ve lived through the years when they couldn’t even get the platform clocks to work. Where the hell do they get off wasting legal fees threatening bloggers for producing noncommercial humourous, harmless remixes?

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the TTC has, in the past, strongly defended its trademark rights with regard to its iconic black background subway map. At one point, an extrapolation of what the map might look like with the Sheppard subway added, created two years before the Sheppard subway opened, was pulled from this site at the TTC’s request, citing copyright issues, and a company desire not to have modifications of the map springing up over the Internet.

It was as a result of this that I suggested to NC Duong, the creator of the super-subway map that swept through the blogosphere and appeared in the Globe and Mail early in 2005, that he refrain from putting his subway lines on a black background. He went with a white background instead, and did not seem to encounter any problems from the TTC.

I would not go so far as to call the TTC’s actions censorship, as the TTC has a legal right to enforce its trademarks, and there are ways to suggest the TTC’s iconic subway map design without violating those trademarks. However, I have to agree that Robot Johnny’s harmless parody wasn’t a threat to the TTC’s trademark, and it would have been nice if the TTC’s legal department had looked the other way. Parodies like this help integrate the TTC into the cultural milleux of the city, which could make it more popular, and stronger, during budget time.

(Update: Sunday, February 26): The story is starting to snowball, and has already received the attention of the Toronto Star. Spacing’s Wire is following developments and notes that a number of people are already submitting complaints to the TTC.