Britt Allcroft: I Am Angry

by on September 2, 2005

Laurence Lessig’s written a great short piece (I didn’t know Americans could do that!) for Foreign Policy on the death of the public domain. He’s great at hitting the nail on the head.

“There is no doubt that piracy is an important problem — it’s just not the only problem. Our leaders have lost this sense of balance. They have been seduced by a vision of culture that measures beauty in ticket sales. They are apparently untroubled by a world where cultivating the past requires the permission of the past. They can’t imagine that freedom could produce anything worthwhile at all.”

Proof, if it be needed of this, was given to me last weekend when we visited the Northampton & Lamport Railway on one of their Thomas The Tank Engine events. It was pretty much heaving with kiddies and other Thomas fans and was a good (half) day out. But it could have been better were it not for the state of copyright law.

As part of his banter while we rode the short distance of the restored track, Sir Toppham Hat (pictured in the above) went into some rather interesting detail about how much of the proceeds from our ticket prices, tea and Thomas merchandise went to the current copyright holders of Thomas The Thank Engine (and Friends): Britt Allcroft. It seemed to be a pretty large chunk.

I looked around me and saw the place in a new light. The railway is maintained by volunteers: rail enthusiasts who dedicate their spare time to keeping the rather rusty engines and dilapidated carriages working. We watched some of them working on rolling stock in the sidings, seemingly oblivious to the Thomas event around them. There’s been an immense amount of effort to restore the track and re-build a bride across the River Nene (which is barely more than a stream) with help from Leicester and Northampton councils. But in terms of return on this investment of labour and love, The Thomas The Thank Engine event instead gives a hugely disproportionate benefit to Britt Allcroft.

The writer of the Thomas The Thank Engine stories is dead. His work should be in the public domain. Instead, copyright holders are allowed to skim off profits from events like this at the Lamport Railway and give me and my kids a bum deal. In Thomas’s case, this may be the situation perhaps for another fifty years (if current EC legislation allows it). Our ticket money could have gone towards shiny brasswork, perhaps a restored ticket office and waiting room and many other things that needed care. Instead we had to ignore the fact that the waiting room is a portable home; the cafe is a carriage literally falling apart, and the Fat Controller’s spats are falling off his feet.

All this left me angry. The two councils and the volunteers at the railway have done a wonderful job and the place is truly magical because of it, but Britt Allcroft and HIT Entertainment are a blight. How many people at the event realised this I don’t know. Maybe it was just me and Sir Toppham.

Again, Lessig:

“And the cultivation of culture and creativity will then be dictated by those who claim to own it.”

A possibly ironic footnote, but I think it rather noble that the content of the Northampton and Lamport Railway’s website is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments

Thomas the Tank Engine
Dear Jonathan,

I was reading your report on your visit to a Thomas the Tank Engine event at the Lamport Railway.

I’m personally very sorry that it was such a disappointment.

But it is important to let you know that I have no involvement with this event nor do I receive any financial gain from any monies received from the sale of Thomas merchandise.

My life with Thomas began in 1979 when I started to bring these stories to life from the printed page and was completed when I parted with my original company in the year 2000 which was subsequently taken over by Hit Entertainment. My first priority was always to bring happiness, comfort and inspiration to little children through storytelling and I’m continuing this mission with the work I do now.

With all good wishes to you,
Britt Allcroft

OK this is interesting
I’m going to make the (perhaps unsafe) assumption that you really are Britt Allcroft. Webtorque welcomes comments from co-founders of multi-million dollar, international, publicly traded corporations just as much as the next blog. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re not.

So let’s get the apologies over with first: I didn’t know you no longer receive financial gain from the sale of Thomas merchandise, and for that I apologise. The point of my post was not really to criticise you, or even Hit Entertainment, but to use your relationships with the 60-year old stories of the Rev W Awdry and his son as an illustration of what’s wrong with the state of copyright in the 21st century and the tangible effects this has on popular culture.

To further this illustration, perhaps you could explain the financial relationship you had with Thomas, and the relationship Hit Entertainment has now (if different). In particular, I would be very interested to know whether you think Thomas should ever be in the public domain. How long should Hit Entertainment be allowed to profit from something they had no hand in creating? You say you brought the stories to life. What if somebody had wanted to do the same thing in a different way? Would you have prevented them?

Thomas and the Profits
My grandson Ben is mad on Thomas etc. Fine! But why do the owners of the copyright (Hit Entertainment? Britt Allcroft, whose name also appears on the packaging?) not put as tight controls on the merchandise that they license as they appear to do on the finances of events? Ben already has models of Annie and Clarabel: when my wife gave him a model Thomas to go with them, the couplings didn’t match, because the models were made to different scales. No mention of that on the packaging… Try explaining to a toddler who has just dissolved into tears of disappointment… It seems that each manufacturer has its own ideas on scale and pattern. Thanks very much, copyright holders. What are you going to do about it?
– Stuart (real name)

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