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Nostalgic World War II poster becomes focus of lawsuit

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 8:15 p.m.
Thirteen years ago, Stuart Manley stumbled upon a slightly faded red poster tucked at the bottom of a box of books he had bought at auction. Unfolding it, he found himself staring at a relic of World War II, a long-forgotten piece of government propaganda bearing the logo of the British crown and this pithy message: Keep calm and carry on. (Henry Chu/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

ALNWICK, England — Has a piece of advice ever seemed so apt, or so frightfully ironic?

Thirteen years ago, Stuart Manley stumbled upon a slightly faded red poster tucked at the bottom of a box of books he had bought at auction. Unfolding it, he found himself staring at a relic of World War II, a long-forgotten piece of government propaganda bearing the logo of the British crown and this pithy message: Keep calm and carry on.

Charmed by its classic design and no-fuss stoicism, Manley and his wife, Mary, framed the vintage poster and hung it up by the cash register in their secondhand bookshop in a disused train station in the far north of England. After many admiring comments and inquiries from customers, Manley started selling copies — behind Mary's back, because she didn't want to commercialize it.

But Manley's little side venture would spawn a marketing and cultural phenomenon, inspiring a million imitations around the world and also, alas, one very acrimonious feud.

‘A smart chap'

The Manleys and other traders are caught in a spat with an enterprising Englishman who, after launching his own line of “Keep calm and carry on” products, trademarked the phrase with European authorities two years ago. A slogan originally intended as a public exhortation to a nation at war is now the intellectual property of one person, who has forced some other vendors to stop using it.

The businessman, a former TV producer named Mark Coop, insists he's simply protecting the interests and brand of the company he has worked hard to build since 2007. His foes accuse him of trying to monopolize a piece of history.

“He's a smart chap,” said Stuart Manley. “No ethics, but smart.”

The Manleys and their allies are hoping that their legal appeal to overturn the trademark, which gives Coop exclusive rights to “keep calm and carry on” in all 27 countries of the European Union, will succeed. A decision is expected soon.

Until then, the merchants fighting to free those five little words from private ownership have no choice but to heed them.

“By and large we do,” Manley said with a rueful smile.

Who knew?

The Manleys never envisaged that their serendipitous find here in the historic town of Alnwick, close to the Scottish border, would wind up a cultural touchstone.

What seemed to the Manleys as just a bit of quintessential British nostalgia has turned into an international industry.

Visitors to an aviary featuring birds of prey in southern England can buy mugs proclaiming “Keep calm and carrion.” lists nearly 100,000 products with “Keep calm” in their descriptions.

Almost all use a version of the no-frills, slightly fusty font that lends the original poster its retro feel. Coop's trademark does not give him control over the visual factor or all the many parodies.

The Manleys acknowledge that they have not been served a cease-and-desist order from Coop, who recognizes their pioneering role in popularizing the poster.

“I wouldn't dream of stopping them from selling copies of the poster that they found,” said Coop, who operates out of southern England. “If it wasn't them who found it and brought it to life, nobody would be aware of the poster.”

Buried in the dispute lies another irony: The posters and the slogan were not in wide circulation at the time they were created. They've become iconic in the 21st century, but weren't in the 20th.

The public balked

Britain's Ministry of Information coined the phrase as part of a propaganda campaign to stiffen resolve during World War II. Two other posters were plastered across signboards in London train stations, village post offices and other public places. One warned ominously: “Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might.” The other declared, “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory.”

The third in the series was “Keep calm and carry on,” stamped in white capital letters on a bright red background.

The government printed hundreds of thousands of copies, but they never got off the ground, says Bex Lewis, a researcher in mass communications at the University of Durham who has studied wartime posters.

The British public reacted negatively to the first two, which seemed condescending and, worse, useless.

“People were prepared to do stuff for the war effort. They didn't want empty messages saying, ‘Keep your chin up,' which is what these were seen as,” Lewis said. “They wanted more practical advice.”

The government got the hint. The “keep calm” posters languished largely unused and most were probably pulped during or after the war, when paper was scarce. Only a few dozen surviving examples have surfaced since the Manleys found theirs; Coop says he tracked down an original and bought it for about $3,000 at auction in 2010.

The one that started it all still hangs behind the cash register in the Manleys' bustling bookstore, Barter Books.

Stuart estimates that they've sold 100,000 to 200,000 “Keep calm” posters, about a third of them to Americans. But books remain his core business.

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