Did you hear the story about the 13-year-old homeschooler whose drawing was removed from an online art gallery last month because it contained the phrase “Winter is Coming”? Felicity Wilcox and her family live in Edwinstowe, Notinghamshire, UK.
According to HBO’s legal team, Felicity’s illustration infringes the entertainment giant’s intellectual property from its hit TV show Game of Thrones. HBO supposedly owns US trademarks on a line repeatedly used in the series: “Winter is Coming.”
The expression – coined by Ned Stark who is played by Sean Bean – is central to the plot of the fantasy series. But seriously, haven’t people been saying “winter is coming” for millennia, at the end of every autumn?
It seems ridiculous, but Felicity’s artwork with the accompanying slogan was taken off the Redbubble website where she had posted designs made for her studies. Redbubble then e-mailed her a copy of the takedown notice.
Felicity’s dad told SWNS, “When your daughter gets upset and shows you her laptop which says she is being threatened for posting an innocent picture on the internet – it’s the world gone mad.”
The message read: “Dear Flic, we have removed the following content from Redbubble in response to past complaints from Home Box Office, Inc., the claimed owner or licensee of related intellectual property and in accordance with Redbubble’s IP/Publicity Rights Policy.”
When asked about the incident, Mr. Wilcox said: “My daughter, who happens to be autistic, was doing an art challenge called Huevember which consisted of doing a piece of art based on a different colour as you worked your way round a colour wheel. She was uploading her pictures to a variety of sites and sharing them on Facebook and for this particular piece, she decided to title it ‘Winter is Coming.’”
The Wilcox family doesn’t watch “Game of Thrones,” and at first they thought maybe Felicity’s drawing inadvertently resembled one of the characters. But that wasn’t the case. So how is an image that’s totally unrelated to the show and containing a common phrase going to cause irreparable harm to GoT’s brand?
A statement from HBO reads: “We love when fans are creative in their support of our programs. These works live online in many incarnations and in the past we have celebrated them by drawing attention to them. Many for-profit websites that sell products, such as Redbubble, take steps to avoid infringements as part of their standard operating procedure.”
So it would appear that fan art is fine, but the problem stems from potential commercial use of unlicensed products. Redbubble is an online marketplace for print on demand products based on user submitted artwork. Nevertheless, Felicity’s picture does not bring to mind “Game of Thrones” at all, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the TV program. Therein lies the irony, the coincidental use of the phrase notwithstanding.
In the UK you don’t have to formally copyright anything, as the moment it’s written it is covered by copyright law, but this only applies to “unique works.” It would not apply to an everyday phrase used on a kid’s drawing. It’s hard to believe that the US trademark process would permit organizations to trademark words and phrases already in common usage, especially when used in a completely different context.
Upon further investigation, Felicity’s dad said “it appears HBO are doing this all over the place regarding this phrase. It seems to have upset a lot of people on Etsy and elsewhere who have had the same or similar letter.” Getting such a letter is enough to scare people, which is all they need.
Mr. Wilcox suggests that any other parent subjected to HBO’s unique form of art criticism respond by simply turning the channel off. “Get on with your life,” he declared, “and boycott any HBO production, as they go around picking on and upsetting disabled children who have acted in total innocence.”
Soon we’ll be saying “spring is in the air” – anyone claim that phrase? Ha! Anyway, great artwork, Felicity, keep it up!