Remember that story I posted a few days back about the Orwell estate taking down 1984-branded merchandise from Café Press? Mike Masnick at Techdirt has done a little more investigating and found there’s a lot more to the story than other sources had reported.

It turns out that the Orwell estate takedown wasn’t even aimed at the particular T-shirts that got taken down. It was aimed at other merchandise on Café Press, which used photos of Orwell and quotes, in an effort to look like actual licensed merchandise.

The thing is, the takedown wasn’t even properly formatted to be a valid DMCA takedown notice. A valid takedown notice requires specific identification of the exact item or items that are infringing. The Orwell estate’s notice didn’t have that.

Café Press should have replied that they needed a properly-formatted notice to be able to take down the items being complained about. Instead, they responded by taking down everything on the site that looked like it might have something to do with Orwell or 1984, including those T-shirts that weren’t even named in the original takedown notice.

It’s easy to understand why they might want to do that. I’ve tangled with lawyers with takedown or cease-and-desist notices a few times myself, and given that I’m not made out of money, the simplest thing to do was simply knuckle under and do whatever I could to get the lawyers’ crosshairs pointed away from me. Still, when you’re running a presumably-well-funded print-on-demand merchandise company like that, you might be expected to show a little more backbone.

It puts me in mind of the time similar POD merch company Zazzle pulled down a Tolkien-referential button entirely on its own initiative, without even getting a request from the Tolkien estate. Techdirt notes that this isn’t the first time Café Press has done something like this, either. Hopefully a little public shaming will prompt them to be a bit more careful in the future.


  1. Cafe Press should make its corporate logo a cowering chicken. The Tech Dirt article is right about Cafe Press having a reputation it describes this way:

    “Unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve written about CafePress overreacting and taking down lots of stuff over which there was no legitimate takedown. The whole situation seems rather ridiculous, and even worse is that CafePress sat there and let the Orwell Estate take the heat for its actions. It seems that, once again, if you’re looking for a print-on-demand partner, CafePress is not your best choice.”

    Years ago, I made a t-shirt that featured the cover of my Untangling Tolkien book and put it on Cafe Press. A few months later, Cafe Press yanked it, claiming they had received a letter from the game side of the Tolkien copyright (not the family literary one). They even refused to show me the letter.

    At the time, I blamed the SF lawyer for acting over-broadly and Cafe Press for merely being too cowardly to stand up to them.. Three separate provisions of copyright law protected my cover from being copyright infringement. Could any IP lawyer be that stupid? I thought about filing a grievance against her.

    But based on this incident, I wonder if perhaps that SF lawyer simply sent a blanket warning (as did the Orwell estate) and the frightened little hens of Cafe Press corporate fled in flight, yanking anything remotely tied to Tolkien.

    At any rate, I agree with Tech Dirt. Cafe Press has long been on my Don’t Do Business With list.


    The reticence of the Orwell estate’s lawyer to release his letter isn’t surprising. Under the name Chilling Effects, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has been ridiculing these letters for years, making lawyers very touchy about exposure. Recently, they changed that name to Lumen:


    One final note about 1984. In 1904, long before Orwell’s novel, G. K. Chesterton wrote a a wildly romantic (in the literary sense) dystopian novel called The Napoleon of Notting Hill. It was set 80 years in the future hence in 1984. There’s some evidence from those who knew Orwell that he took Chesterton’s date and incorporated it into his tale. So Chesterton has first claim on the year.


    Notting Hill is far more relevant to today’s Europe than was Orwell’s Stalinist future. In Chesterton’s tale a London neighborhood, Notting Hill, rebels against a greater London that wanted to crush its unique culture much like the EU wants to do with today’s European countries, making them march to endless dictates out of Brussels. Here’s perhaps the most stirring passage:

    “Do you think I have no right to fight for Notting Hill, you whose English Government has so often fought for tomfooleries? If, as your rich friends say, there are no gods, and the skies are dark above us, what should a man fight for, but the place where he had the Eden of childhood and the short heaven of first love? If no temples and no scriptures are sacred, what is sacred if a man’s own youth is not sacred?”

    He’s talking about a love for one’s own place on earth however small and insignificant. Chesterton’s tale inspired Irish leaders to fight for their independence from the U.K.

    Chesterton did not like the British empire and once said famously, that he didn’t want to “live in an empire without sunsets,” turning the sheer size of that empire into a liability. Some call him the father of small is beautiful movement. He also inspired Gandhi to create an authentic Indian nationalism rather than import British practices.

    You can find the print and audiobook versions of Notting Hill here:

    –Mike Perry

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