Legal Battle Breaks Out Over ‘Doctor Who’

Nov 14, 2013  •  Post A Comment

A legal battle has erupted over the BBC series "Doctor Who," and at the center of the dispute is a time-traveling device that is a key player on the show.

The U.K.’s Independent reports that Stef Coburn, a son of the writer of the first "Doctor Who" episode, is claiming the BBC is in breach of copyright for the use of the TARDIS — the blue police box that serves as the Doctor’s time-traveling vehicle. The story reports that Coburn wants the company to pay up or stop using it.

"Stef Coburn claims that upon his father’s death, any informal permission his father gave the BBC to use his work expired and the copyright of all of his ideas passed to his widow, Joan. Earlier this year she passed it on to him," the story reports.

Coburn told the publication that he remembered his father, Tony Coburn, speaking with his family about the creation at the dinner table, telling them, "Get a load of this, boys: TARDIS. Time and Relative Dimension in Space." Tony Coburn wrote "An Unearthly Child," the series’ first episode, which includes the TARDIS.

"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 program. 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," Stef Coburn said.

The BBC said it is looking into Coburn’s complaint. It added that there haven’t been challenges to the copyright since the BBC registered it in the 1980s. Coburn said if he had owned the rights then, he would have taken action.

His father reportedly came up with the idea after walking on Wimbledon Common and seeing two blue police boxes. "Struck by the alien sight, he says, Coburn was inspired to make them the physical basis of his fantastical machine," the piece notes.

tardis-doctor-who.jpg"Doctor Who’s" TARDIS


  1. Informal permission? Well…unless laws are very different in Britain, and the writer had a clause in his contract with the BBC retaining rights to “his” intellectual property, it would seem that every word he wrote as an employee of the BBC belongs to them. He was paid to write a script, and that’s what he did.

  2. Had DOCTOR WHO been produced in the US since 1963, everything you wrote would have been correct. Having created material for the original WHO series from roughly 1978 to 1985 (I was the first US-based writer & possibly the first American, depending on what qualifications are counted, to directly write material for the series), I can confirm that the British system is MUCH different than the ‘creator for hire’ system used here in the US. As an example, look at any WHO episode featuring the Daleks and you’ll see a creator’s credit for Terry Nation. That’s more than just an acknowledgement – Nation’s estate has to grant permission for their use. It’s a somewhat co-owned copyright with BBC that allows the company to use Terry Nation’s creation as part of DOCTOR WHO but if, say, GEICO wants to use Daleks in an ad campaign, that’s not only the Nation estate’s call but the Estate gets all of that licensing fee – BBC is completely out of that transaction.
    Now let’s look at this guy’s claim that his Dad has been due 5 decades of royalty payments for creating the acronym for TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), not the TARDIS itself OR the familiar late 50’s-era blue Police Box. In the late 60’s, script editor & screenwriter, Derek Sherwin, created what became the second most familiar acronym for the series, UNIT. Originally standing for United Nations Intelligenc4e Taskforce, a revamp of the acronym appeared in the first season of the new series. Previously, any production using UNIT would credit Sherwin as its creator while the most recent UNIT episode of the series failed to list any creator at all. The reason I mention this is because Mr. “my Daddy made up the word TARDIS 50 years ago and I never gave a damn until I saw it plastered all over kid’s toys so now I want paid every time somebody even mentions it” could find himself without even bragging rights – all BBC has to do is change a word and it’s theirs.
    The British version of ‘created under contract’ is kind of a nightmare for producers but gives writers grea incentive to create something new instead of just using the same antagonists over and over.

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