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Published on November 10th, 2013 | by Christian Cawley

Anthony Coburn’s Son In Spurious TARDIS Copyright Claim

As I tucked into my breakfast, tablet in hand, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that the son of 100,000BC writer Anthony Coburn is challenging the BBC over a breach of copyright concerning the TARDIS.

The police box shell was apparently chosen by Coburn senior as the disguise for the Doctor’s space-time ship under direction from other writers and production staff involved prior to Coburn’s involvement to create an everyday outward appearance. Son Stef claims inspiration struck during a walk in the park in which his father spotted two police boxes closely positioned.

(Whether non-fan Stef Coburn is simply confusing this event with Logopolis isn’t currently known.)

It is by no means my wish to deprive legions of Doctor Who fans (of whom I was never one) of any aspect of their favourite children’s programme. The only ends I wish to accomplish, by whatever lawful means present themselves, involve bringing about the public recognition that should by rights always have been his due, of my father James Anthony Coburn’s seminal contribution to Doctor Who, and proper lawful recompense to his surviving estate.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that the timing of this action is in any way related to Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary. However, it does seem likely. We’ve also been informed by a couple of sources that BBC Four’s intended broadcast of An Unearthly Child and the rest of the 100,000BC serial has been scuppered by Stef Coburn, for similar reasons.

So how has this ridiculous situation been allowed to come about? In the vast majority of cases of working TV scriptwriters in the early days of TV, episodes were written as a “work for hire” with all rights owned by the contracting party (the BBC). As such, no rights would belong to the author other than characters that may be reused later – as seen in cases such as Henry Lincoln and Mervyn Haisman creating the Brigadier, or Terry Nation with his Daleks. In these situation, small fees are paid to the creators or their families/estates.

We can be 99% certain that the concept of the TARDIS was created prior to Coburn’s involvement – we have 50 years of documentary evidence, first and second hand. We also know that the Police Box shape trademark is owned by the BBC, and has been since 1998. So what case does Coburn have? After all, the TARDIS isn’t a character, is it?

Ah. Thanks to Neil Gaiman and previous BBC Books authors, the TARDIS has indeed become a character over the years. This could be interpreted as Coburn having created a character all those years ago, which has then been regularly reused. Coburn junior is claiming reparations dating back to his father’s death in 1977.

Adding to the confusion is the possibility that Coburn had a non-standard BBC writer’s contract at the time.

As money-grabbing, cynical claims go, this one is perhaps be more suited to a reality TV courtroom. Frankly, we think this guy has more chance of winning against an organization as well-documented as the BBC.

(Via The Independent | Thanks to Phil)


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About the Author


A long-term Doctor Who fan, Christian grew up watching the show and has early memories of the Graham Williams era. His favourite stories are Inferno, The Seeds of Doom and Human Nature (although The Empty Child, Blink and Utopia all come close). When he’s not bossing around the news team, Christian is a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology and domestic computing, and enjoys classic rock, cooking and spending time in the countryside with his wife and young children. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

27 Responses to Anthony Coburn’s Son In Spurious TARDIS Copyright Claim

  1. avatar Rich says:

    Odd he’s making a song-and-dance about it now, after 50 years and when the the show is at its most publicly prominent, and not while it was off air/cancelled. Very odd…!

  2. avatar John Bowen says:

    Trying to find words to describe Stef Coburn while remaining mindful of the fact that impressionable youngsters might be reading is quite difficult! What a shameful and selfish action. Let us hope it will be laughed out of court. This deserves nothing but contempt.

    • avatar BOJAY says:

      Would be nice if once the courts rule this ridiculous, the BBC could counter sue for spurious litigation. And some people say Doctor Who fans don’t live in the real world……….

  3. avatar James Lomond says:

    Didn’t the Met police try something similar a while back?.. Oh yes here ’tis:

    • avatar James Lomond says:

      Quite a lot going on there (other than it being a bit ridiculous) in terms of intellectual property – which I don’t know much about. But if the Beeb has a greater legal claim to the appearance and design of the police telephone box than the Met police, then it seems unlikely that Coburn can claim the same.

      Sounds as though he’s relying on his father’s deciding to *use* that appearance and I’m wondering if it’d make a difference whether Coburn decided that it should be stuck as a police box and whether he came up with the idea of the time machine full-stop (which I’m fairly certain he didn’t). And notionally the police box is one of an infinite number of appearances, though clearly it’s become a trademark since.

      Given that Coburn wrote in the 2nd ep that the Doctor was surprised it hadn’t blended in, he did come up with it being stuck – but surely he didn’t determine that it would be *always* stuck in that form. All sounds a bit mean spirited really. (And it’s not a “children’s programme”. It’s family/ cult viewing. Duh).

      • avatar simon magellan says:

        He’d have to prove it was his father who came up with the idea anyway – which might be a problem now – and not CE Webber, Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman or any one of the many, many, people involved in the birth of the series. I certainly always believed it was Webber’s suggestion to make the Tardis a police box to cut down on costs and logistics – and he wrote much of the first episode.

  4. avatar DonnaM says:

    Of course the BBC always air children’s programmes around 7PM on a Saturday night…. having given up all kids programming on BBC1 recently! If you’re hoping to make friends and influence people there are probably better ways of going about it…

    Honestly I might take this claim a little more seriously if it had been made sometime within the last, I don’t know, say 50 years? Popping the head over the parapet at this particular moment seems a little opportunistic, to say the least!

  5. avatar Al says:

    If the family feels they have a case why didn’t they speak up back when the BBC was in the process of obtaining ownership of the police box design? This is the epitome of waiting too long, though it’s possible they’re following the precedent set by the likes of Siegel and Shuster, whose estates managed to regain a level of ownership over Superman a few years ago.

    • avatar simon magellan says:

      S&S though had a legit case, as they did actually create Superman – unless Coburn snr knocked up the original design for the Police box in the 1930s, he hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

  6. avatar Jon Roberts says:

    The police box itself was Crown copyright which the Government allowed the BBC to retain the said copyright when police boxes ceased to be used. With regard to the name TARDIS this, like any other things at the time could have been a collaborative decision, even if Coburn did make the name up he should have copyrighted it, in the same way Terry Nation did with the Daleks, I assume he didn’t so it is now a mute point, the copyright to the name is the BBC’s and has been for 50 years not Mr Coburn’s or his family.

  7. avatar Whovian Leap says:

    Anyone remember this from March? Who knows, there might be proof to support the claim.

    • Except that if Coburn was a DW staffer, there is no claim, just as there wasn’t for Raymond Cusick.

      The question of Coburn’s status within the BBC is the key to it.

      • avatar simon magellan says:

        From the DW News Page:

        “Anthony Coburn was a staff writer for the BBC when he was commissioned to produce scripts for the proposed new science fiction series. He inherited a concept for the show which had been produced by script writer C E Webber in which much of the structure of the programme had already been defined. In the original document the spaceship is described as something “humdrum, say, …. such as a night-watchman’s shelter”

    • avatar simon magellan says:

      In that story it claims he came up with the idea for the Daleks too!

  8. avatar simon magellan says:

    If the Metropolitan Police couldn’t manage it, he’s got no chance. Pity that this nonsense will deprive viewers from seeing the first episode though – I wondered where it had gone in the schedules. His comments show him to be … well, perhaps better not say what!

  9. avatar Ian Gettings says:

    100,000 BC?! What’s that when it’s at home ;)

  10. avatar BOJAY says:

    Must need the money he thinks would come his way. Maybe desperate? Must be looking in the mirror and saying, “I’ve got nothing.”.

  11. avatar Ian says:

    BBC 4 are showing An Unearthly Child .BBC 4 10.30pm 21st November.

    • Still not confirmed, Ian – only the listing says so. :(

  12. avatar simon magellan says:

    Love the fact that he has “demanded” that the BBC pay him royalties back dated to 1977 or stop using the TARDIS Police Box exterior. I mean, seriously?

  13. avatar dr jon says:

    This thing should have been brought up 50 years ago, a bit late now. Is he from another planet?

  14. This sounds like a similar case from the comic book industry. The estate of Jerry Siegel didn’t care about the Superboy trademark/copyright until Smallville started making money. And the family of Jack Kirby didn’t care about the stuff he had a hand in creating till the Marvel Studios films started making money hand over fist. It’s a cynical attempt at a cash grab, nothing more.

  15. avatar Colin says:

    “It is by no means my wish to deprive legions of Doctor Who fans (of whom I was never one) of any aspect of their favourite children’s programme.” Except that, according to reports, he wants the BBC to either stop using the TARDIS or pay his family royalties for every use of the TARDIS since 1963. He’s lying. He doesn’t care about depriving fans of an aspect of their “favourite children’s programme.” Now that Doctor Who has achieve international fame and fortune, he wants a cut of the pie. If this was to be decided in a court of ethics, he’d be thrown out.

    Makes me sick. :(

  16. avatar zarbisupremo says:

    Bit of a nutter with daddy issues, I’d say.

  17. avatar Nick says:

    Two words:
    Money. Grabber.

  18. avatar Capaldikicksass. says:

    He is indeed a money grabbing ass who obviously has no joy left in his life so he is trying to ruin the joy and fun of the 50th celebration and beyond!..if it gets to court he will be laughed out!……there is one thing bothering me a little though the Doctor Who magazine’s celebration issue has an article on Anthony Coburn saying how he is Doctor Who’s greatest unsung hero…..isnt that just giving his son ammo to fire of course Ive not read the article yet but funny this all happens now huh?…it stinks of desperation on Stef’s part.

  19. avatar i m foreman says:

    While initially dismissing his claims that Coburn Senior came up with the idea of the Police box exterior, I now believe this to be the case. The definitive ‘First Doctor Handbook’ states that on Wednesday 15 May 1963, a revised format document for Dr Who for the first time includes the idea of the ship’s outward appearance as a Police Box, and the idea is stated as to have come from Anthony Coburn. However, as he was an employee of the BBC at the time that would place him in the same position as Raymond Cusick, in terms of any ownership/rights etc, so I wouldn’t imagine he would be able to claim any money from the BBC.

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