An Orwellian copyright brawl has erupted over “1984” T-shirts

All about eyeballs.
All about eyeballs.
Image: AP Photo/KHK
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Attacks on truth. The power of suggestion. The terrifying idea that the system can crush an individual who tries to stand up and make himself heard. George Orwell explored these themes in the novel 1984, published in 1949, and his ideas have proven to be just as powerful today.

So when a story began circulating online that the Orwell estate had tried to block the sale of “1984” T-shirts, it was too good to resist: The idea that dark forces, guarding the posthumous interests of George Orwell, were taking down a small, free-thinking clothing seller, was a powerful one. Nobody can own a number!

Except one thing: It wasn’t true.

Bill Hamilton, the executor for Orwell’s estate, explained to Quartz what really happened. A site called Cafepress, which lets users upload their own designs onto a variety of merchandise, was selling goods that used long sections of Orwell quotes and photographs, which are still protected by copyright.

Hamilton said he asked the site to stop selling those goods, but instead Cafepress responded by taking down everything vaguely Orwell-related, including the 1984 T-shirts.

“I am well aware that there is no copyright in titles or names, and that some Orwell phrases are in the public domain,” like Big Brother is Watching You, Hamilton told Quartz in an email. He also noted that the Orwell estate has never itself licensed merchandise. It deems the novelist’s word to be powerful on its own.

“We have to take care because Orwell can so easily be quoted in favour of causes that he didn’t espouse,” he wrote.