Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

Royal Institution: One foot gone, aiming at the other


Rather to my surprise, I got a reply from the Royal Institution about their intellectual property grab on the term ‘Christmas Lecture’.


Dear Dr Clements,

Thank you for getting in touch about our trademark for the expression CHRISTMAS LECTURES, and sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

By way of a further explanation as to why we decided to embark on this process, I can say that we took the decision not to profit from it ourselves but after receiving advice that without doing so, we were leaving ourselves open to the term being commercialised by other organisations. Accordingly, we then pursued registering the trademark, and were awarded it in March 2013 for the expression CHRISTMAS LECTURES to apply to events about science, either live events or broadcast.

We have absolutely no desire to stop other people from running science events (in fact quite the opposite), at Christmas or any other time of the year, but we are of course aware that it does have implications for all the individuals and organisations who deliver such events at Christmas. The options available are:

1. Apply to use the expression ‘Christmas Lectures’ with the prefix ‘Location and/or name of organisation’. The Ri will grant permission to anyone who is not organising events for commercial profit.

2. Call an event something else. This is not something that the Ri wishes to dictate, but options could include ‘Science lecture at Christmas’, ‘Chemistry at Christmas’ or similar.

We will be convening a Christmas Festival of Science to celebrate everyone’s events at a national scale, and we will include events whether or not they use the expression ‘Christmas Lectures’. We very much hope, of course, that most people will choose option (1) and we will work with those who contact us to ensure we come up with a solution that works for both parties.

You raise the question of why such a generic term could be trademarked in the first place. In response to this, we have records going back to the early 1800s describing the term ‘Christmas Lecture’ not to be a generic term, but one that in our case specifically relates to a science lecture at Christmas. This is why we were awarded it solely for the purpose of science.

I hope this goes some way to explaining our rationale for the process and to reassure you that we are working with all those who contact us to find a solution that enables everyone to continue organising their events whilst protecting the expression from commercialisation by a third party.

Best wishes


As you might guess I wasn’t impressed with this, so I sent a reply:


Many thanks for your reply.

Unfortunately your back-pedalling is just digging an even deeper hole for yourselves, and the self-serving justification that ‘we’re only doing this so that someone else can’t’, when nobody has attempted such a thing in 200 years, is, frankly, pitiful. Attempting to colonise everyone’s lectures at christmastime as a mass marketing exercise for the RI is just wasting your time and ours with pointless form filling.

While a year’s end festival of science is certainly an admirable goal, why couldn’t that have been your pitch to the scientific community in the first place, rather than a heavy handed intellectual property grab? At this point such an idea, like the RI itself, is at best tarnished.

I have discussed your case with a friend who is an intellectual property barrister. He confirms that the term ‘Christmas Lecture’ is far too generic for your trademark to survive in court. I trust that you will not send good money after bad in attempting to pursue cases against those you misguidedly believe infringe your worthless trademark. Not only would such a case be a public relations disaster, you would also stand a very good chance of losing.

Dropping this entire misguided idea, and firing those who originated it, is, at this stage, the only way the RI can retrieve a shred of its former reputation. I myself will have nothing to do with the organisation until that point, and any public lectures I give around the time of the solstice will feature Scrooge as your patron saint, since it is his principles that you appear to be following.

In short: You’re in a hole. Stop digging.



It will be interesting to see what the RI’s next move is going to be. They do appear to have realised they have made a mistake, but perhaps have yet to grasp its magnitude. For an organisation in as much trouble as them, this may well turn out to be an error of existential proportions. That would have bothered me once, but no longer.



Author: davecl

Astronomy, science, science fiction

3 thoughts on “Royal Institution: One foot gone, aiming at the other

  1. I thought their reply quite reasonable. Sounds like trademarking Worldcon or Eastercon to me

    • There’s a difference between trademarking a term like WorldCon which refers to something specific, another thing completely to trademark something that is wholly generic. What is a Christmas Lecture but a lecture at christmas, no matter who is doing it or where. I’d have no issue with them trademarking Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, but for them to grab every scientific christmas lecture across the country – and there are many that they don’t do – is a huge intellectual property grab.

      It’s not even a move that would be well supported in law because the term is so generic, as demonstrated by the number of non-RI Christmas Lectures that there are already. And as for this ‘fill in a form to get permission’, I’d rather give a yuletide talk than pander to their marketroids power fantasies.

    • If the RI organised ‘Chrislecs’ and obtained a trade mark in the term then I don’t think anyone else would have a problem. But ‘Christmas Lecture’ is very descriptive, as indeed ‘World Convention’ or ‘Easter Convention’ would be.

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