Picture this: It’s the summer of 2013. Because she’s a schmuck, a Head of History is to be found in the empty corridors of a secondary school in the summer holiday. It’s quiet, it’s calm, no kids hurling themselves at walls, no staff members shepherding students to and fro.

The teacher is perched on a chair by the wall just outside her classroom. She wears grubby cords and a paint splattered t-shirt. She applies the last brush stroke and stands to survey the work. Her magnum opus is complete.

The lighting really sets it off doesn’t it? A map of History, showing the various ‘zones’ of the past, and the interlocking cultures and events of our world History. 

Because I love validation, I put it on social media. ‘Great stuff’ people said, which was really thoroughly nice of them. But one wily friend went further: ‘You should copyright that,’ she whispered. ‘You should try and sell it to museums and companies and make millions!’ she tempted.

So, where to begin? Well in hindsight I’d totally ripped off the tube map so was I actually the copyright infringer rather than the copyright creator? That only later dawned on me. Instead, I emailed the Intellectual Property Office and a lovely man called Tom replied to me. He raised some points that I’d never considered before:

  • Copyright is automatic, so there was no need to ‘register’ this design
  • To prove that I was the originator, I should make copies and post them to myself via special delivery (the unopened envelope still sits on my bookshelf).

BUT

  • I had made this in the course of employment. Normally any rights belong to the employer, not the employee. This mural that I’d spent weeks on might not even really be mine.

It was an interesting brush (ha ha!) with copyright. There was no resolution per se – sorry. I’d emailed TFL and a couple of publishers without any success (nor, indeed, reply now that I come to think of it), but that was fine. I’d enjoyed doing it for the sake of it, and it was nice to see the odd kid staring up at it as they queued outside my classroom. But since then it has made me more conscious of what I create, for what purpose and where – ultimately – the rights to it sit. I struggle to imagine any school that would really enforce their rights in this respect, but nevertheless, if I don’t ‘own’ the creation, am I really in a position to sell it or benefit from it?

It’s all academic now anyway. Years of bags and bodies bouncing off the wall had taken their toll and the premises manager didn’t have the stomach to paint round the mural. It was painted over earlier this year. Ultimately a layer of emulsion owns it.

Editor’s note: The London Underground map is protected by copyright. As such, if you were inspired by this post and would like to create something similar yourself, you are advised to contact TfL first.

This blog was originally published here in August 2019.