Tangling with the MTA comes with risk, occasional reward for creatives

Artcrime. via Victoria McKenzie's Etsy shop

Artcrime. via Victoria McKenzie’s Etsy shop

It can be tough out there trying to do something creative in the world. First of all, people don’t always take you seriously. Even worse than that, once you think you’ve come up with some awesome new idea, suddenly it turns out you’re violating a copyright. And not just any copyright, one held by a giant, almost faceless entity not inclined to show mercy to. That’s the position a number of people have found themselves in after crossing the MTA in copyright violations.

The Times studied the phenomenon of people who infringe on MTA copyrights, which covers a wide range of potential misuses of their maps and subway line symbols. They’ve rebuffed a roller team named the Grand Central Terminators, who wanted to do a photo shoot in Grand Central Terminal, a deli that named itself F Line Bagels and even Massimo Vignelli, the guy who made the original subway map, after he designed an updated version of the map for Men’s Health without asking the MTA permission first. The MTA, in their defense, point out that the subway is an internationally beloved brand that they hold a copyright on, and that making sure people don’t use their symbols keeps people from thinking they endorse this or that, while also making them some money. And Lord knows they could use some.

Plus, as in the case of artist Victoria McKenzie, the MTA coming after you can boost sales. McKenzie, who was selling paintings she’d made on old MetroCards, hadn’t sold any, until the MTA sent her the ol’cease-and-desist letter. Suddenly, she sold 20 paintings and made a deal with the MTA to take any MetroCard references off the paintings after she took her story to the press. In the case of Vignelli, the MTA tapped him to make that Weekender map that we all love so much.

The most interesting part of the story to us is that the MTA has perhaps the most miserable internship opportunity in history, since Mark Heavey, the MTA’s chief of marketing and advertising, confirmed to the Times that an army of unpaid interns trolls the web for MTA copyright infringements. We can just see it, batches of college kids in tanks like hybrids in Battlestar Galactica just streaming through reams of data online, stopping and screaming when they come across something that might be an infringement. Gives us the willies, we tell ya. 

2 Comment

  • Using Metrocards as canvases should fall under First-sale doctrine, especially since the MTA sells metrocards for $1.

  • You may be interested in the latest 99% Invisible, which deals with the same sort of thing, only regarding I Heart NY’s copyright infringements: http://99percentinvisible.org/post/58961307959/episode-87-i-heart-ny-tm. Most tellingly, the copyright holders once served a cease and desist to Milton Glaser, the guy who designed the logo in the first place.

    It’s their job to protect their intellectual property, of course, but we do have laws in place to protect parody that the State of New York (and apparently the MTA) seem to either not understand or just choose to ignore.