The Vicious Trademark Battle Over 'Keep Calm and Carry On'

In 2000, Stuart Manley, the owner of Barter Books of Alnwick, Northumberland, found a folded poster at the bottom of a box of random books he’d bought at auction. (Barter Books is a very famous and beautiful bookstore housed in an old train station. Many features of the original station have been left intact, and there are model trains running around the shop on a high track above the bookshelves.) Mary Manley, Stuart’s wife and partner in the shop, took a liking to the poster. It was framed and displayed behind the till. Right away people started trying to buy it off them: Not For Sale, they were told. But the demand wore the Manleys down, and eventually they ordered 500 reproductions through a local print shop. This was in 2001.

Around this time, the comic genius Chris Donald came to work at Barter Books. Having already founded Viz Comic, a magazine that once enjoyed a valuation of over 20 million pounds, I reckon the job was mostly for fun. (Later on he would write the absolutely corking memoir Rude Kids.) He shares a love of heritage railways with Stuart Manley, and that’s how the two met. A skilled graphic designer as well as a publishing legend, Donald wound up redesigning the “Keep Calm And Carry On” poster for the Manleys. He explained how in an email.

As I recall Stuart’s original facsimiles were slightly smaller, and the lettering was not very well balanced. He’d left it to his printer to knock up the original artwork. He asked me to prepare something more like the original, and with a small line at the bottom mentioning Barter Books. Stuart might recall that better than I do, but I think I still have the artwork on my computer. The revised version, which was simply a facsimile of the original poster on the shop wall. I used Gill Sans but I’m not sure that the original was Gill. It may have been hand and was certainly very similar to Gill Sans and Johnston Sans. Stuart and Mary were particularly keen to get the colours and texture right. I’ve been a graphic designer since 1983 and Mary is the fussiest customer I have ever had. Her attention to detail is astounding.

In another email, he explained that he’d also advised the Manleys on possible copyright issues.

Following several media exposures they had to take on extra staff to deal with the demand for Keep Calm merchandise. At this point I warned Stuart Manley that the poster may be Crown Copyright (ie belong to the British Government) so he ought to check with them (the Central Office of Information as was) to see if they objected to his merchandising the image. He did so and was given the all clear to continue selling Keep Calm.

Stuart Manley could quite easily have filed for trademark protection back then, but he didn’t. And when other businesses began selling Keep Calm products, mugs and beer mats and mouse pads and whatnot, he didn’t go after any of them, though he did ask to be credited for his discovery by the many manufacturers who later made use of it.

Fast-forward to late March of this year, when unbelievable prat Mark Coop, an ex-TV producer whose credits include “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, succeeded in obtaining an EU trademark for the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Coop had established a business selling Keep Calm products online in 2007 (and, as Megan Hustad noted here a couple years back, he was soon doing so well he brought in his mom to help fulfill orders). The Telegraph and others reported that Coop’s UK trademark application was denied, but the EU one breezed right through. Soon after the EU trademark was granted, he started enjoining his competitors from selling Keep Calm merchandise on eBay, apparently by notifying eBay that he was the trademark owner and asking them to refuse access to certain vendors, as blocked competitor Kerry Cade explained to the BBC last week (starting at 1:00).

That raised quite a number of hackles. Then Coop made things worse by appearing on the BBC to discuss the controversy, saying not only, “I have to protect my own interests,” but also, “Had I not built this up, they probably would never have even heard of it, you know, they would never have even have seen it, so I think they’re jumping on the back of essentially what I came up with.” (Rubbish! Even I, way over in Los Angeles, had already bought Keep Calm posters from Barter Books before then, and given them as gifts to nervously inclined friends.)

In any case, when Coop started his business in 2007, the Manleys had already sold tens of thousands of posters. One of them to Mark Coop, as it happens.

Since the news of his trademark wheeze got out to the British papers some days ago, Coop’s popularity has plummeted. The prevailing mood on both sides of the Atlantic was captured perfectly in this Metafilter comment:

A petition against Coop’s claims was started, and Trade Mark Direct has filed an application with the EU trademark office (the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, it’s called) seeking to invalidate Coop’s trademark; the case will take four to six months to settle.

In an interesting aside that has not yet been commented on, to my knowledge, The Keep Calm and Carry On Beverage Company of London succeeded where Coop failed, and registered several domestic UK trademarks for the subject phrase beginning early this year. You have to apply for each trademark based on whatever class of goods you mean to brand, is the thing. In the case of the Keep Calm and Carry On Beverage Company, they are looking to brand:

and a few other classes of goods as well—biscuits, boiled sweets and also:

If the challenge to Coop’s EU trademark succeeds, it’s not quite clear what the status of the Keep Calm and Carry On Beverage ‘n’ Condom Company’s marks will be. They certainly aren’t feeling one iota of the heat that Coop is, I guess because they haven’t started handing out mass injunctions yet.

Indeed, it seems altogether possible that Coop didn’t succeed in his domestic application because these other guys got there first on certain classes of goods, notably class 06, “Common metals and their alloys”, which includes key rings. The domestic mark for this class already belongs to Beverage ‘n’ Condoms. Conceivably, they could enjoin Coop from selling any keyrings in the UK right now, if they felt like it.

So, can Coop keep the EU trademark? The IPKat, a multi-authored blog focusing on IP, trademark and copyright issues in the UK and Europe, offered this analysis:

The Kat has been asked if he thinks that the Community trade mark registration could be challenged on the grounds that the slogan (i) had been widely used in the UK for some years and (ii) would not be recognised, at least in the UK, as indicating trade origin. Provisionally the Kat thinks that there is no challenge per se under (i), since prior use is not a ground on which a CTM can be nullified unless it establishes that the mark is non-distinctive, descriptive or suffers from some other defect which would prevent the relevant consumer from associating it with the owner’s goods or services. (ii) however — if it can be substantiated — could be fatal to the registration.

So Coop’s case doesn’t look too good, just on the face of it. I guess all the vitriol has gotten to him, too, though he hasn’t given up yet. He hired Cascade PR, which issued a statement last week attempting to exonerate the beleaguered prat. The first sentence of which is, “I’ve been reflecting upon the argument that has been incited and feel it is only fair to put my side of the story across, as much as it loathes me to be drawn into this bitterness.”

The persuasive skills of Cascade PR are about on a par with their grammatical ones, I regret to report. The statement’s big claim is that Coop wants only to prevent low-quality copies of “his own” designs from “saturating the market.” He acknowledges that the Manleys began selling their own Keep Calm merchandise, such as posters, six years before he started his business, and then he claims that he isn’t selling posters (“[I] set about producing an array of products (not posters),” he says). Three paragraphs or so later he explains how all his outfit’s super-high-quality stuff is locally sourced and non-sweatshoppy, and that his “[m]ugs and chocolate come from Scotland; posters are hand-printed by a local screen printer on artist paper.” Oh boy! It is pretty bad.

So I guess we will hear what happens with all that in a few months’ time.

Even Weirder: The Wartime Poster That Never Saw The War

The Keep Calm and Carry On poster was designed and produced by the British government in 1939 in advance of the war, but it was never displayed in a single English tube station or tobacconists or newsagents. Not one ordinary citizen ever saw it in the street before or during the war.

Of the 2.5 million posters originally printed, only a handful survived the war; all the rest were pulped. Exactly two copies are known to have made it into private hands. One of these is owned by Wartime Posters of Warrington, Cheshire. The other is Stuart Manley’s.

A very few more are held in government museums, such as the Imperial War Museum, whose website observes, “And remember the most important wartime tip of all: Keep Calm and Carry On.” Haha, not even! Hardly anyone had ever seen that thing before 2001!!

Why not?

Dr. Rebecca “Bex” Lewis wrote a Ph.D. thesis in 2004 called “The Planning, Design and Reception of British Home Front Propaganda Posters of the Second World War” that provides a credible answer.

Early in 1939, it was clear that war was all but inevitable. The precursor organization to the Ministry of Information swung quietly into gear at that time, and began work on five million posters to plaster all over the place and improve citizen morale. Not everybody was on board with crafting public messaging before it was clear how things were going to shake out, but the dissenters were overruled and the project went forward.

But the war didn’t begin the way they expected. The period from late 1939 to early May of 1940 was known as the Phoney War because the Germans had invaded Poland with such a lot of Blitzkrieg that everyone in Britain and France expected pretty much the same thing for themselves. But that did not happen, and wags took to calling this period the Sitzkrieg and so on, and that went on until the Germans marched into France and the Low Countries. It took until autumn of 1940 for the London Blitz to begin.

Meanwhile, Sitzkrieg or no, the MoI was lumbering onward. The first two posters produced in 1939 were: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril: Defend It With All Your Might.” Two and a half million of the third were printed. They read, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and these last were held back in anticipation of the rain of bombs that was expected the moment war broke out. They were meant for a crisis that didn’t in the event occur. For that and a few other reasons, the British public never saw them.

(Oh, and there was also a plan for “50,000 of a special design for display in empty and wrecked houses,” according to Dr. Lewis.)

In his book The British At War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, James Chapman describes the atmosphere in which the posters were designed.

The MoI started the war […] with no propaganda policy and no theoretical grasp of what propaganda itself really was. […] One of the problems was that the most successful official propaganda organisation of the time was the German model. A paper prepared by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in June 1939 […] illustrates the confused state of thinking. It was influenced not only by the experience of the First World War (‘during the Great War it was found that one good poster would do the work of twenty public meetings’) but also by Hitler’s views on propaganda in Mein Kampf (‘According to Hitler, propaganda should use basic ideas and should address itself solely to the masses.’ […] ‘As regards the masses of people, appeal to their instincts and not to their reason’).

Michael Balfour’s Propaganda in War 1939-1945 (1979) describes a corresponding muddle on the policy side. It would take the war machine a long while to figure out how to handle the news. (And wow, this is such an amazing, terrific book that I am so thrilled to have been turned on to. Such style, such brains.) During the months of the Phoney War, the War Office made one blunder after another, such as the French BEF fiasco:

[T]he War Office was first induced by a leak in the French Press to admit that a British expeditionary force was in France and then, when it saw how the papers were headlining this news, called in the police to confiscate the first editions. Three hours later, after almost every Cabinet Minister had been got out of bed to hear telephonic protests from his journalistic contacts, the generals realised that the stable door was irretrievably open and went back on their change of mind.

It’s all so Duck Soup. In these circs., it was hardly surprising that the fledging MoI was such a wreck. Balfour again:

Another cause for criticism was found in posters which had been prepared, with expert advice, in the belief that they would go up in an atmosphere of crisis caused by heavy air-raids; in a wholly different context, they were greeted with disdain. One carried the words, ‘Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory’. This was widely criticized as suggesting that the authorities were dissociating themselves from the ordinary man. But if the adjective had been ‘our’ rather than ‘your’, a loophole would have been provided for the individual to opt out of responsibility on the ground that other people could be relied on to cope. A more perceptive criticism was that, to many of the public, ‘resolution’ only meant something one made at the New Year!

Indeed the disdain for the first posters was widespread. Dr. Lewis writes:

The Times had described the posters as ‘egregious and unnecessary exhortations’, ‘insipid and patronising invocations’, which were unneeded and wasteful of funds, comparing the posters unfavourably to those produced by the French. […] The Daily Express header the day after [the cost of the poster campaign was announced] was ‘Waste and Paste’ […]

Brigadier V.M.C. Napier commented, via a letter to The Times: “Is it wise, to say the least, to placard the countryside with posters calling on the courage and resolution of the individual when no appreciable demands have yet been made on these qualities?”

So not only was there an insufficiency of bombs during the Phoney War to create the correct atmosphere for these propaganda posters, the public got sick of the campaign before it had even begun. Hence, they were left to Keep Calm and Carry On on their own, without benefit of poster-encouragement.

And it was left to us to imagine them hanging around in the darkened Tube stations surrounded by these posters, bravely subsisting on eggless cakes and butterless toast deep underground, and they all looked like Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet, and sang beautiful songs.

I asked Stuart Manley what he thought about the failed poster campaign, and the fact that “Keep Calm” had never been displayed at all. He replied, “Who knows what positive effect it may have had if it had been distributed, rather than the clunky ‘Freedom’ and ‘Courage’ posters! It resonates now, so it would probably have resonated then. (But then we would never have had the Barter Books resurrection story!)” Can’t argue with any of that.

The Wartime British! The bravest, noblest flower of 20th-century humanity. Modest, courageous, steadfast, undaunted, enduring the most horrible horrors with a sad, dashing half-smile and a quiet “bad show, old man.” Keep Calm and Carry On. And of course, they really did. All that is true. But the thing we never seem to get is that the citizens of Britain didn’t know they were like that, not at the time. They were just as pissed off and furious and depressed and disaffected as we are, what with their incompetent politicians and their blasted propaganda and their starvation-ration coupons. The stories told afterward are bound to be very different from what was going on at the time.

It gives me a little hope for our own situation.

Related: “Are You Airminded?” The Slang Of War

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

Top photo courtesy of Barter Books, used with permission.