What Happened To Those “N is Near” Shirts Everyone Liked? The SFMTA Got Them Censored Online!

These last few months I took a sabbatical of sorts from posting here at the blog. After over 7 years writing about all things Muni, I needed a break, plus my work schedule changed enough to where for a while I was so tied up in all sorts phone calls, a LOT of reading, and so on, at the end of the day the last thing I wanted to do was look at a computer.
I’d hoped to return to blogging with some fun posts, photography and the like, but instead it seems there’s a bit of a mess going on courtesy of SFMTA, one that takes a bit to explain. So grab a coffee/chai/water/cocktail/large beer/water and have a read:
As most of you know, I have been selling t-shirts and other items via on-demand producer Zazzle.com for some time. This was never a huge cash cow for me, but I made enough to cover blog costs and assorted minor expenses (the overhead with Zazzle is very high and they do the taxes, so the net is $2 a shirt, more or less).
The most popular was our “The N is Near” shirt, and over the years we came out with several others. I used Zazzle mostly because I couldn’t afford to make a large order of shirts in bulk, and then try and sell them on my own via stores, etc. and I don’t have the space to keep inventory at home.
These have been online in one form or another since 2006, and it’s not like it was a state secret that I was doing this. Plenty of other people have published similar items at Zazzle, Cafe Press, or elsewhere. Many artists also produce Muni themed art, and there’s even people around town who get tattoos related to Muni because, well, it’s OUR system and it’s part of SF life.
A few months ago, I got a notice from Zazzle saying that an anonymous “copyright holder” was ticked off and my designs for The N is Near, the “Muni Failwhale” and (oddly enough) the “80th Anniversary” were taken offline.
To me this seemed strange since it’s not like anyone would confuse these with official SFMTA anything, and the designs were original creations, with the exception of the “failwhale” design, which was a parody of the clip art Twitter used to use when Twitter would have a hiccup in service.
Since the “copyright holder” was anonymous, I wondered if it might be the infamous NYMTA, which attacked an SF local artist for making Muni themed t-shorts a couple of years ago.
Here’s a copy of the notice I received for “The N is Near” (it’s virtually identical to the other ones I got)

Dear gdewar,
Thank you for your interest in Zazzle.com, and thank you for publishing products on Zazzle.
Unfortunately, it appears that your product, The N is Near – N Judah Chronicles.com, contains content that is in conflict with one or more of our acceptable content guidelines.
We will be removing this product from the Zazzle Marketplace shortly.
Please help us make our content approval process better by taking this short survey.
The details of the product being removed are listed below:
Product Title: The N is Near – N Judah Chronicles.com

Product Type: zazzle_shirt

Product ID: 235713382677527250

Result: Not Approved

Policy Notes: Design contains an image or text that may infringe on intellectual property rights. We have been contacted by the intellectual property right holder and we will be removing your product from Zazzle’s Marketplace due to infringement claims.
Image: Image
If you have any questions or concerns about the review of your product, please email us at content_review@zazzle.com and we’ll be happy to provide you with additional support.
Best Regards,
Content Review Team
Zazzle Inc.

In a bit of irony, about a week after this notice, I got an automated message from Zazzle.com asking me to finish my design for an “N is Near” baseball hat. O, the hilarity.
Needless to say, this was a surprise, and was also very vague. I appealed the decision, mostly to find out just who was claiming this, since it was anonymous.
Here’s the response to my appeal. I’ve added bold text for emphasis:

09/10/2012 02:40 PM
Hello Greg,
Thank you for being a Seller at Zazzle.com!
We would love to offer every design that our users submit, however we must abide by all applicable laws and standards as well as our own content guidelines and copyright policies.
Unfortunately, it appears that your products did not meet Zazzle Acceptable Content Guidelines. Specifically, your products infringes upon the intellectual property rights of San Francisco Muni. This includes images of buses, logos, maps, signs, etc.
Zazzle has been contacted by representatives from San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and at their request, to remove designs that may infringe upon their rights from the Zazzle Marketplace.
We are sorry for any disappointment, but hope you will understand our position in this regard. For future reference, please review Zazzle Acceptable Content Guidelines at: http://zazzle.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/143.
If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Thanks for using Zazzle. We look forward to seeing more of your creative designs!
Best Regards,
Content Management Team
Zazzle, Inc.

Folks, what we have here is a perfect storm of a typical dot-com company’s TOS crap, a dysfunctional city agency that seems clueless, and an overly aggressive City Attorney’s office who chose a sledgehammer, when a simple phone call to me would have solved this matter call to everyone’s benefit. (Ha.)
Zazzle, of course is free to invent whatever terms of service they like, and even if said terms blow up things like “fair use,” “satire,” and freedom of speech, so be it. The fact is it didn’t have to be the SFMTA to contact them and claimed “infringement” – any pissant in the world could have contacted them and they’d pull it down, because they don’t want to have any legal battles over a few items from one of their thousands of users and don’t bother to investigate if such claims are warranted or not.
All I can say is that I’ll pull the plug on the store with Zazzle.com, despite years of patronage, make sure to tell everyone I know not to use Zazzle.com, and and go my own way, saying “F*ck You” to these bozos on the way out. Fine.
What’s more troublesome is both how the SFMTA is now claiming “copyright” over images in the public domain (and even a representation of things like buses and streetcars), and their selective enforcement.
There are plenty of apps in the iTunes app store that use both images from Muni/SFMTA and data, and I don’t see the City Attorney, acting on behalf of the SFMTA, kicking their asses. Nor are they paying “royalties” to the agency (at least as far as I know, app makers let me know if this isn’t the case). Hmm.
In fact, the City of San Francisco has routinely bragged about “crowdsourcing” and “open data” for some time now, so it seems a bit strange that now they want to take things you and I, the public own via our public transit system and now say “you can’t use that, pay us or get a legal brief jammed up your ass.” Gee, how “open.” **
I wonder when they’re going to bring down the hammer on artists who make creations based on Muni, people who create prints (like this wonderful one I just purchased) , non-profits who support Muni like Market Street Railway, or people who take pictures and post them on Instagram, Facebook and so on.
Sound silly? Not under the interpretation of the law the SFMTA is operating under, and the City Attorney is enforcing. Sure it may be bullshit, but who has the money to hire a lawyer and fight a City with endless amounts of time and money to peruse this, because, of course the CIty is an efficient operation and things like homelessness, crime, crime on Muni, and the like no longer exist, so time now to go after artists and writers, right?
I’ve talked to more than one attorney and while battling with Zazzle might have a little merit, in the end it’s not really worth it. I’d make more money going the do it yourself route and wholesale to local retailers, so it’s best to just let them continue to be jerk-asses, and move on. Besides, locally-sourced anything helps everyone, right?
For now, though, if you have any of these shirts you have a collector’s item now. Even if we come out with some new designs, I’m not so sure we’ll be bringing these back. Hang them in the closet for 30 years and have your kids take them to Antiques Roadshow: 2040 on the moon or something.
The real problem is the SFMTA. They don’t seem to understand actual copyright law, what is and isn’t “intellectual property,” and are enforcing their unique view very selectively, most specifically on one blogger who writes about the pain and joys of Our Muni. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
All I can say is this – I’m not such much mad as I am annoyed, and I find all of this to be particularly so as we are supposedly celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Municipal Railway. San Francisco led the world by creating the first publicly owned agency in the United States dedicated to one thing – serving the people of the City of San Francisco, who are its owners and riders. I wonder how this got lost over the past century.
*Muni has talked of a “licensing” system because someone over there saw New York City making big cash of its licensing of logos, etc for the various departments (including the NY MTA) and probably thought “Gawrsh! We could get free money too! Let’s endlessly talk about it for a long time like we do with everything!”
However not only has said system never happened, even if they followed the NYC model, the net amount of money they’d earn would be peanuts, because the volume just isn’t as high. Put it another way – after years of selling these things, they’d get maybe $75 after I pay off expenses (the domains, hosting service, software etc) and give them 10% of the net. Citywide, they would maybe get enough for some ivory backscratchers for the SFMTA board or something at best.
**Crowdsourcing didn’t work so great for Muni and the SFMTA recently, when they conducted a poorly executed operation to “crowdsource” a new (needless) logo for the SFMTA. Look how well that turned out.
Another blogger wrote about this situation yesterday before I did. Check out what he uncovered!

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