In recent years, though, a decidedly unsexy brand — derided for decades, with little sign of an image improvement — has become one of the city’s most imitated: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Powered in part by the rise of online shopping, which has helped small-time entrepreneurs market their subway-inspired creations widely, the transit agency now issues up to 600 notices a year for copyright infringements to protect trademarks on train line logos, subway maps and other system imagery. That represents a more than twentyfold increase since 2005.
But the authority’s focus has not been limited to New York’s starving artists. It has flagged Massimo Vignelli, the designer of the beloved if confounding 1972 subway map, whose 2008 update for Men’s Vogue used trademark route symbols without permission. There have been illicit pastries resembling MetroCards, and earrings made of surviving subway tokens.
A stern letter was sent regarding an amateur, all-female roller derby team called the Grand Central Terminators, whose request for a photo shoot inside Grand Central Terminal was rebuffed after a determination that, as the authority wrote to the league’s commissioner, “aligning our G.C.T. brand with your organization” would perhaps be ill advised.
Then there was the Midtown trade reception whose invitation recreated subway line logos. The perpetrators: the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association.
“It has almost become a game of Whac-a-Mole,” said Mark R. Heavey, who is the transportation authority’s chief of marketing and advertising.
Almost always, the authority has legal standing, even if notices are issued inconsistently. Subway, rail and bus maps are copyright protected, and each subway line symbol is a federally registered trademark. Even in borderline cases — where a business uses a subway logo, for example, but alters the color scheme slightly — the authority often has wide latitude in issuing infringement notices “if there’s reason for confusion,” Mr. Heavey said.
It is under this premise that the authority would not allow the roller derby shoot, reasoning that any images inside the terminal would imply the authority’s endorsement.
But a business like Grand Central OB-GYN, on East 43rd Street, does not run afoul of the authority because, a spokesman said, “there is no potential that anyone might think the M.T.A. is in the OB-GYN business.”
The authority has gone to court only once, officials said, to challenge a deli called F Line Bagels in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in 2005. The sign out front now reads just Line Bagels.
Other major transit agencies have also kept an eye on possible emulators. A section of the London Transport Museum’s Web site reminds visitors to “mind the copyright.” The band Chicago, originally called Chicago Transit Authority, shortened its name after receiving a “quiet suggestion” from the office of Mayor Richard J. Daley, according to a 2007 Chicago Tribune interview with the group’s former manager.
But New York’s creative class has at times shown itself to be particularly persistent.
Some artists have run afoul of the rules repeatedly, Mr. Heavey said, offering products on sites like Etsy without the authority’s approval. Others said they were simply unaware that the symbols of their daily commutes were not considered public domain.
Even larger operations have slipped up. In 2010, Nordstrom received a letter from the authority after a dress emblazoned with a subway map was found in its online catalog. Transit officials were “pleased” that Nordstrom recognized the map as “a clever, colorful design that is fit for a silk dress,” the letter said, but less pleased about the copyright breach. A spokeswoman for Nordstrom said the dress was no longer available.
The authority reviews scripts for films, television shows and commercials that seek use of the system or its trademarks, Mr. Heavey said, then decides if it wants to associate with the show or product. But sometimes crews do not seek advance permission, forcing the authority to flex its muscle.
The authority, which receives $500,000 a year in licensing revenue, said it could not estimate how much had been lost to copyright offenses, but any amount is of consequence, particularly given the agency’s quest for income that does not come from fares.
Occasionally, those who infringe later strike licensing deals with the authority, which typically takes in about 10 percent of the wholesale price.
In one instance, the authority decided to commission Mr. Vignelli to create its “Weekender” map, an interactive guide on its Web site.
At times, a copyright tiff with the authority can prove helpful.
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