Thomas the Tank Engine - he ain't so sweet

Take his name in vain and he will hunt you down, warns Rachelle Thackray
Click to follow
BEHIND the benign smile there are hidden teeth. And the eyes are sharper than they look. Thomas the Tank Engine, beloved of young children, is proving that he is not afraid to bite back when unscrupulous entrepreneurs take his name - and image - in vain.

While pirating a brand is nothing new, companies which own jackpot-generating images such as Thomas are stepping up the pressure on perpetrators who make a quick buck by using the popular figure to promote products or services at children's events.

The Britt Allcroft Company (TBAC), owned by a former Blue Peter producer who bought the rights to the Rev W Awdry's The Railway Series in the early Eighties, now has a team of four people monitoring local newspapers for unlicensed use of the Thomas image, with around 1,000 cases identified each year. Offenders may be sent a legal "cease and desist" letter if they refuse to stop operations.

The latest contretemps concerns a home-made lookalike train operated at fairs in Ayrshire, and discovered by the company two weeks ago. Britt Allcroft spokesman Brian MacLaurin said: "After costs, these men make a donation to charity. We have spoken to them, but they are being fairly hard-nosed and aggressive. The Scottish are twice as guilty as the English; they keep popping up.

"People say, 'We are giving the money to charity; it's ridiculous; it's a public image', but it has cost pounds 15m to develop the product, and you have people who have invested that money. It is up to Britt Allcroft to decide which charities to adopt in line with the overall image of the brand. It is not at the whim of a pensioner from Essex."

He was referring to former toolmaker Doug Ransome, 73, who hit the headlines late last year when TBAC discovered he was operating an unlicensed Thomas the Tank Engine electric train at village fairs in the Forest of Dean. The train, seating four children, runs at just under two miles an hour accompanied by steam locomotive sounds. The company asked him to change its name and colour.

"I bought a gallon of paraffin to destroy it, but the local newspaper editor put me against it," said Mr Ransome. "A lot of people make trains that are not very nice-looking, but this one really looked the part. Kids used to kiss it and stroke the face. It would have enhanced their sales; I made a lot of children happy." He plans to call his revamped engine The Pink Pumpkin Train. In another case, staff at a Southampton children's bed shop held a farewell party after they were told to remove a 10-year-old sign featuring Thomas.

Britt Allcroft has granted around 400 UK Thomas licences, with 2,083 products bearing his image; Heinz, for example, increased spaghetti sales by 54 per cent by displaying the train on the side of tins. The company charges an initial fee per unit based on projected sales fees, plus extra if sales exceed the estimate.

David Lowe, of the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), which last year brought 205 criminal cases for trademark and licence related offences, said brand theft was on the increase. "Traditional video pirating seems to be on the decline, but it's going into other areas, such as merchandising. People are looking for a product that is being marketed well, and they can just get into that gap."

Britt Allcroft anticipates similar headaches with another children's favourite, Captain Pugwash, star of a new television series later this year. "The fundamental point is that with Thomas, Britt Allcroft loses up to pounds 100,000 a year of potential licence revenue, and the brand can be damaged if a train crashes with kids on it. We want people to realise that Britt Allcroft is hunting them down. Saying 'I'm giving the money to charity' is not a good enough excuse."