TV Legends Revealed | Did BBC Buy Rights to Blue Police Boxes?

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TV URBAN LEGEND: Did the BBC buy the trademark to blue police boxes from the Metropolitan Police?

When the first episode of Doctor Who was written in 1963, one of the biggest points of debate was over the appearance of the Doctor’s time machine. Eventually, they determined it would look like a police box, a little blue concrete room that was, in effect, a miniature police station.

Created in the United States, they began appearing in the United Kingdom by the turn of the 20th century, with the iconic blue version of the London police box introduced in 1929. The police boxes contained telephones that would connect directly to police stations; a light on the top let officers know when the station was trying to contact them. By the 1950s, London was covered with police boxes, with nearly 700 dotteing the streets. Therefore, if you wanted your time machine to fit in in London in 1963, disguising it as a police box would be a great idea. The police box is revealed in the series to actually be a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which is exponentially bigger on the inside; it’s simply camouflaged as a police box. However, in the first episode, the camouflaging technology malfunctions, leaving the TARDIS stuck in that form. There was some debate over possibly having the TARDIS disguise itself as different objects as the series went along, but for whatever reason (almost assuredly budgetary, but I don’t know that for certain) the producers decided to stick with it just being a police box.

Legend has it that the first TARDIS was a re-used prop from the popular police television drama Dixon of Dock Green (which was, in turn, based on the 1950 police film The Blue Lamp), in which Jack Warner played Police Constable George Dixon for decades. This isn’t true, however. (Wow, two legends debunked for the price of one! Lucky readers!) Production designer Peter Brachacki built the police box used in the first episode of Doctor Who (which was then used for the first 13 seasons of the show). Anyhow, another legend is about who owns the trademark to the TARDIS. A common bit of Doctor Who trivia is the following (I got it from this Doctor Who site, but I’ve seen it in plenty of places):

The BBC actually owns the copyright to the design of the police box used as the design for the TARDIS. It was bought from the Metropolitan Police.

The drawing the BBC submitted with its trademark application

The drawing the BBC submitted with its trademark application

Besides using the term “copyright” when they mean “trademark” (a common mistake and not one worth making a fuss about), the first part of the trivia is correct. However, how the BBC got the trademark is a lot more complicated than that!

In 1994, England revamped its trademark law with the passing of the Trade Marks Act 1994. Soon after, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), owners of Doctor Who, registered the blue police box as a trademark, for use on pretty much every commercial avenue that you could think of (TV series, toys, shirts, posters, etc.). This simply means that if a T-Shirt or a poster had a picture of a blue police box on it, said product was made or licensed by the BBC.

However, instead of going along with the BBC’s efforts, the Metropolitan Police filed an opposition claim in 1998 to the trademark claim. They argued the blue police box (known commonly as the “Police Telephone Box”) was a trademark of the Metropolitan Police, not the BBC, and that the object was most commonly associated with British police. Further, while they gave consent decades earlier for the BBC to use the box in Doctor Who, they never intended to give up their rights to the trademark of the item.

The Metropolitan Police’s problem, though, was that by 1998, the police box was no longer the ubiquitous sight it once was. The advent of compact communication devices in the late 1960s (first walkie-talkies and by now, mobile phones) made the boxes mostly superfluous. From nearly 700 boxes in the 1950s, the police had less than 100 by the end of the 1990s; today, there are fewer than 30. Compare that with the fact that Doctor Who is popular not only in London but all over the world. Therefore, the box was now far more associated as being the TARDIS than a little-used police box.

Moreover, even if the Metropolitan Police could prove the public associated the box with them, it would only be an association for actual police work. That is not something, then, that they would expect to see on T-shirts, posters and toys. The TARDIS, however, is a different story. Finally, the fact that the Metropolitan Police did not actually create the look for the police box was also a knock on them (as noted earlier, the police box originated in the United States).

In the end, the Patent Office ruled against the Metropolitan Police, fined them a little more than 800 pounds and made them pay the BBC’s legal costs. So the blue police box is now all the BBC’s! Amusingly, since then (especially since the current version of the series has proven so popular), the police have explicitly used the TARDIS connection to market the boxes, especially when they try to sell them.

The legend is …

STATUS: False as presented

Here is a link to the 2002 decision if you’r interested in reading it in full.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!

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Comments

  • MJB

    What do you think ‘exponentially’ means?

  • http://Godzylla.tumblr.com/ Keith Bowden

    Come, come, it’s “dimensionally transendental”!

  • http://twitter.com/ArmyofWomack Cindy Womack

    Hmmm, a whole lot of Etsy crafters and tshirt sellers should be paying Auntie Beeb.

  • Dan Pawlak

    Can you cite your source that details British Police Box design originating in America? Police call boxes (just a box with a phone in it), certainly… but I’ve never heard of the “small room” design originating anywhere other than Britain.

  • Stuart Headlam

    “From nearly 700 boxes in the 1950s, the police had less than 100 by the end of the 1990s; today, there are fewer than 30.”

    Nope. If only there WERE still 30 boxes to see out there. Most of those six hundred-and-something boxes were demolished around 1970, with a couple surving as far as the 80′s before also being dismantled.

    Currently, two original TARDIS-style Police Boxes can be seen in museums outside of London, while a new box built in the 90′s by the Metropolitan Police to back up their legal claim stands outside Earls Court tube station. This box has become something of a tourist attraction – to Doctor Who fans.

  • sally king

    it would be interesting to challange the BBC claim to this as they state in almost every episode that it is bigger on the inside than on the outside, so in this case i think they can have the right to any police boxes that are bigger on the inside than the outside. making their claim a little contestable i do believe. worth exploring.