Calendars: SOLD OUT. Engineering: STILL LOUD.

All copies of the 2012 Wondermark Calendar have been spoken for. Thanks so much! We’re busily printing all this week, and if all continues to go well I expect we will be mailing them out starting this Saturday.

I also noticed that TopatoCo is currently sold out of Engineering shirts in most guy sizes, and I do not expect them to restock before Christmas. Just to cover the gap, I’ve put a few up in my own store for the time being, just whatever I have on hand.

A few people have written to tell me that they saw a shirt with this same slogan in the Signals catalog, or on their website. They are right to think that it was done without my knowledge or approval — I’d never let a design this ugly go out:

This is a tricky situation — legally, you cannot copyright a short phrase or slogan. (That’s why you can see stupid slogans like “FBI: Female Body Inspector” on fifty million different T-shirts in fifty million different tourist shops.) A design is copyrightable, but in this case they only used the words. You can trademark a slogan, but that costs a fair amount of money, and I hadn’t done that. (Maybe I should.)

Anyway, Signals and similar catalog shops are in the business of being everything to all people. There is no philosophy; there is no creative point of view. There’s just “Ah! Someone might identify with this. Let’s put it on a shirt and see if we can sell a bunch.” Apparently someone thought that my shirt design was just another free-floating slogan ripe for appropriation.

So I wrote them an email. The reason I’m sharing this story — when I usually don’t bother to bring up situations like this, and give attention to entities that deserve to die in obscurity — is because I thought my approach might be instructive.

The knee-jerk response is “Cease and desist! Sue! Call a lawyer!” This implies that (a) the issue cannot be solved through more amicable means, and (b) I have a lot of time and money to throw at this kind of problem. The latter is not true, and I like to at least allow for the chance that the former isn’t either. There’s a lot of double negatives in that sequence, so I’ll restate: Being aggressive puts people on the defensive. Being friendly gets people to help you.

Also, always give the party in the wrong the ability to back off gracefully.

Learning this is one of the biggest things that has helped me in life: avoid putting people on the defensive. Sometimes it is necessary to be firm, or to express dissatisfaction, or to press for remedy of a situation. But I have never found yelling and shouting to be the easiest way to that end — at least, not as an opener.

Here’s the email I wrote, in part:

Hello! I was referred to this email address by Signals customer support. Please let me know if I have the right place!

I’m the creator of the comic strip “Wondermark” and the originator of the slogan: “Engineering: Like Math, But Louder.” I first published it in a comic strip in June 2010:

I also sell a T-shirt with the slogan:

A reader brought your “Engineering T-Shirt” to my attention: [link]. And I see you also sell a similar sweatshirt.

I double-checked with my licensing department and we have no record of any paperwork or payment from Signals for use of the slogan on a T-shirt. If this is an oversight, I would be pleased to send an invoice for the licensing. Otherwise, I must insist that your shirt be removed from sale.

I’m sure it was an honest mistake and I’m happy to assist in setting things right. Thanks very much, and please contact me with any questions! I look forward to hearing from you by October 28.


David Malki !
[email address, phone number]

I was forwarded up the chain to somebody with authority. This person eventually said, in essence, “We’re within our rights to make our version. But you know what? Yours is a much better design. We’d like to license yours instead.”

Always leave them a graceful out. So, the spring Signals catalog will feature my version of the Engineering design.

Should you all rush out and buy the shirt when it becomes available? No, absolutely not. Their royalties are horrible — like, beyond horrible and into the realm of insulting. But considering that all I wanted was for them to stop selling the ugly version, any royalty at all is a nice bonus. And considering that someone may have submitted that slogan to them and thus stood to earn their own royalties on sales of the knockoffs…that’s not right.

I’m pleased that this situation ended (more or less) amicably. Of course, your mileage may vary, but I am living proof that it is possible to assert your rights without being rude or making enemies.

ALSO: Thank you very much for bringing this sort of thing to my attention. You are my eyes and ears. A quick email or tweet whenever you see something like this is very appreciated. I will reward you…with e-smiles

14 thoughts on “Calendars: SOLD OUT. Engineering: STILL LOUD.”

  1. “Also, always give the party in the wrong the ability to back off gracefully.”

    Should be engraved in granite among the rules for easy life.

    Makes getting your way so much easier. There are some things that nobody willingly gives up in a negotiation and dignity is at the top of that list.

  2. Well done. As a complaint handler I love you.
    I am sure you have checked this but in licensing them to sell your print on their shirt you are still going to be able to sell your print from your own stores right?

    DM: Yes, it’s a non-exclusive contract!

  3. e-smiles are the best kind of smiles.

    No, I guess that’s not true. But you can put it on a t-shirt if you want and I will not sue your pants off. UNLESS I FEEL LIKE IT THAT DAY.

  4. I noticed that your shirt is also available at Thinkgeek. Do you have any preference what site folks buy them from?

    DM: Thanks for asking! In this particular case, ThinkGeek, TopatoCo, and my own store (when available) are all equally great choices. Whichever’s easier for you!

  5. Well played, sir, well played. In any successful negotiation, the object is for both parties to feel satisfied.

  6. Well played! I can’t find the citation at work (I think it’s called “to capture, one must set loose”), but one of Sun Tzu’s best pieces of advice in the Art of War is to ALWAYS give your opponent an out.

    Corner someone, and they’ll fight to the death. Give them a way to retreat, and they’ll only fight you until… eh… you know, it’s easier just to give you some money.

  7. What an absolutely superb approach to life’s little difficulties, or big difficulties for that matter. We should require all governments to react thus when provoked, or when they have their little feelings hurt. Thank you!

  8. Squid’s Law is fantastic!!!! You should totally make prints of this and sell it. If you do, it will pop up in cubicles all over the world. I’m not exaggerating in the least. You could make a fortune from that alone.

  9. Thanks for sharing how to deal with a dispute with civility. I’ve tried to explain this before but you did it much better in just three sentences.

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