BART's Monster-Sized Trademark Claim: A Tale of Two Logos

Local comedian Mark Pitta has a bit about watching the climactic finale of Scarface with his mom: In the midst of the blood-soaked invasion of Tony Montana's villa by Alejandro Sosa's horde of Bolivian mercenaries, Pitta's mother quips, “That is a lovely house.”

Local attendees of the new Godzilla with a similar attention to detail might note that, during scenes ostensibly set in San Francisco, entryways to faux-BART stations are graced with unfamiliar, anodyne, futuristic logos.

Owen Paterson, the film's production designer, says this was a decision made by studio bosses. “It was not my choice,” writes Paterson, who was also the production designer for the Matrix trilogy. “Warner's clearance always makes us change that stuff unless they can get written clearance from the copyright owner. Which is not always as simple as that might sound.”

It's even harder when you don't ask for clearance. And, per BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost, the transit system was never consulted by Warner Bros. On the other hand, the film studio appears to have made the expedient choice — because BART is a lot more aggressive about policing its logo than it is about making you keep your feet off its plush seats. Per the agency, if you were to film scenes in San Francisco, and a BART sign appeared in the background, that would constitute “fair use.” But if you were to re-create an ersatz San Francisco in Toronto — as Paterson et al. did — and re-create an ersatz BART logo, that would require written permission.

BART's logo is not in the public domain, and even local T-shirt artists who glean BART imagery do so at their own legal peril. But, in claiming it can clamp down on moviemakers' First Amendment rights, BART is taking things rather far indeed, says UC Hastings law professor Ben Depoorter.

“Movies are commercial — but they have a lot of free speech purposes,” he says. “If I were making a Saturday Night Live sketch about BART, what they're saying is I would have to ask permission? No, that would quell free speech. … There's no potential for confusion. It's not like the movie is selling BART-related goods.”

Well, perhaps it should. After all, that is a lovely train. JE

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