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From corporate giants to photo peddlers, MTA takes on copyright thiefs

Joe Moore was told to stop printing poof shirts about the San Francisco train system, but the MTA later dropped the complaint. (Photo courtesy Joe Moore)

It’s not quite fare beating, but the MTA sure gets steamed when someone steals its copyrighted logos and images.

MTA lawyers have gone after everyone from Nike to amateur photographers for ripping off its logos, though the accusations haven’t always been on target.

Joe Moore, a San Francisco programmer, was told in 2007 to stop selling $20 T-shirts featuring letters inside circles. The shirts parodied the San Francisco transit system, not New York’s, and used different fonts and colors than the MTA. Once the media latched onto the controversy, though, the MTA dropped its complaint.

“It just seems absurd to me,” said Moore, 34, who sold a handful of shirts.

The MTA trademarks 50 images and phrases, including all train numbers and letters, the subway map and “If you see something, say something.” Since 2007, agency lawyers have told nearly 100 proprietors to stop using trademarks or buy a license, according to MTA letters.

Targets have included:
- Promoters of a heavyweight fight at Madison Square Garden, for using a No. 1 symbol

- Designer Kate Spade, for making charm bracelets with fake subway tokens

- Hot 97, for using “a wide variety of MTA intellectual property” on its Web site

- Adidas, for using a MetroCard in a graffiti exhibit that the MTA wanted “no association with”

- A Cafepress artisan, for selling counterfeit Long Island Rail Road teddy bears

- Citibank, for asserting its branch was at Grand Central Terminal instead of the MetLife Building

Most famously, the MTA  got a Brooklyn bagel shop in 2005 to remove an F train logo from its sign. Selling photos of MTA property, like the front of trains, is even illegal without permission.

According to the most recent figures, one MTA lawyer received $135,000 a year to handle licensing among other legal duties.

Not all of the accusations have panned out. Allegations that Sony marketed subway-themed clothing in Japan turned out to be false, a representative said. A religious non-profit accused of running “an unlawful “ambush” Web site called mtainfo.com has nothing to do with the agency. “We are a Christian ministry,” said Steve Hudgik, the organization’s director. “We do nothing related to transit.”

Still, agencies are often aggressive in protecting their trademarks, according to intellectual property lawyers.

The MTA earned $3.6 million in revenue last year from deals that included licensing agreements.

A MTA spokesman said the agency’s obligated to cash in on trademarked imagery, and officials cut reasonable deals with businesses for the rights. A Brooklyn company was recently granted a license to produce customized subway signs.

“(It’s) a win-win for all parties,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “Creative companies and individuals get access to iconic New York logos … and a little bit of the revenue generated by sales comes back to help the MTA.”

MTA intellectual property theft

Top contraband: T-shirts

Most frequent targets: On-line artisans with Zazzle and Cafepress

Top intellectual property stolen: Subway map, train line icons, images of Grand Central Terminal

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