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Who owns The Doctor?

The iconic TARDIS from Doctor Who is at the center of a UK copyright case

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It’s safe to say that the Ninth Doctor would not find this “Fantastic!”

Every popular television program — especially one that has been around for 50 years — has iconic images associated with it. For Doctor Who fans, those images include a long, multi-colored scarf, a hi-tech device called a sonic screwdriver and, lately, a bow tie (bow ties are cool, after all).

But even people who do not consider themselves diehard “Whovians” are vaguely aware that the show involves some sort of blue wooden box. That, of course, is the famous TARDIS (which stands for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space”), which the main character (known only as The Doctor) uses to, you guessed it, travel through time and space. Without the TARDIS, The Doctor would just be a strangely dressed man running down corridors. It is, in short, as essential to the show as the protagonist himself. 

But now, that iconic piece of Gallifreyan technology is in jeopardy. It is not threatened by The Doctor’s enemies, like the Daleks or the Cybermen, but rather a more terrestrial threat: a copyright lawsuit. The TARDIS is an iconic blue box, fashioned after police call boxes that were prevalent in London in the 1950s and 60s. Today, however, the image of the blue box is more associated with the TARDIS than with the actual historical call boxes. As such, the BBC has put the iconic image on just about every piece of merchandise imaginable, from teapots to earrings.

Now, however, the son of the writer of the first episode of Doctor Who is suing the BBC for ownership of the TARDIS intellectual property. Tony Coburn wrote the first episode of the long-running series, “An Unearthly Child,” which introduced the TARDIS to the world. His son, Stef Coburn, claims that the BBC is in breach of his father’s copyright, stating that, since the elder Coburn’s death in 1977, the informal permission he had given the BBC to use the work expired, and the copyright should fall to his next of kin.

The BBC formally registered the copyright of the TARDIS in 1980 and has received no formal complaints previously. Stef Coburn says that he waited until his mother’s death last year to press the point, as that was when the intellectual property rights fell to him. 

It remains to be seen if this matter will end up in British courts or if Coburn and the BBC can come to terms. At this point, though, with the younger Coburn expressing displeasure at the BBC’s omission of his father from a dramatization of the origin of Doctor Who, and Stef Coburn’s assertion that he has never been a fan of the show, cooperation between the two parties seems as likely as a team-up between The Doctor and Davros. And this is a problem that cannot easily be solved by waving a sonic screwdriver around. It’s ineffective against litigation, after all. And wood.


For more copyright stories, check out the following:

Beastie Boys copyright infringement suit against Monster to proceed

Deputy director of the USPTO discusses an ‘interesting year’ at AIPLA

Technology: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, shield and sword


Senior Editor and Community Manager

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Rich Steeves

Richard P. Steeves is Senior Editor and Community Manager of InsideCounsel magazine, where he covers the intellectual property and compliance beats. Rich earned a B.A....

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