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Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Ridicule over silver fern deserved

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The NZRU wasted years trying to restrict use of the silver fern. Photo / Getty Images
The NZRU wasted years trying to restrict use of the silver fern. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise appears to have a Department of Making It Look as Though We have Nothing Better To Do. It came in for a fair share of ridicule when it told a Singapore-based New Zealander not to use its trademarked version of the silver fern (Cyathea Dealbata) as decoration on his Twitter feed.

The ridicule was well deserved.

It's not as though the Singapore resident, whose followers are in double figures, was a Chinese dairy company trying to associate itself with a national icon to boost his business. There was no question that he was pretending to be affiliated with NZTE for commercial gain. He appears to have been nothing more than a proud expat proclaiming his connection with the land he loves.

Consequently, one of our most successful bureaucracies put itself in the same heavy-handed category as the Walt Disney mob telling a daycare centre it couldn't have Donald and Mickey on its murals and ordering them removed.

Even that mega corporation may have adjusted its views to err on the side of common sense. At a school fair recently I saw a bouncy castle decorated with at least a dozen flagrant copyright violations.

No one owns the silver fern as a symbol of New Zealand. They merely own the form in which it's presented, whether it's on a pack of butter that belongs to Fonterra or on NZTE stationery. And it was the use of their particular version that got the department's dander up.

They were right on the point of law but wrong in point of don't make yourself look like a drongo.

The power the internet gives individual citizens makes such restrictions increasingly irrelevant, as was soundly demonstrated within a couple of days when several people added the NZTE logo to their feeds.

I hope the department will have had the sense to back off at this point and not fuel this fire. Cut down one violation, 10 will spring up to take its place.

In its defence, NZTE's Nick Swallow said it needed to crack down because any infringement would "weaken our intellectual property rights, including the ability to enforce more serious commercially based infringements".

This is nonsense. The second half of that statement does not follow from the first.

Anyone can tell the difference between commercial and non-commercial infringements*, as Swallow acknowledged when he said that most innocent infringements were done "with the best of intentions".

At least the agency wasn't as profligate as the boofheads in the NZ Rugby Union who spent four years of legal fees trying and failing to prevent anyone using any silver fern on any black jersey.

Do they look back and wonder what on earth they were thinking? I'd be surprised.

We will be in for more of the same if, as is quite possible, the fern becomes part of a new flag design. Perhaps we should reconsider the use of the fern as a national symbol.

At the least a national symbol should say something about a place. Bolivia has the condor, India the tiger. We tend to go in for less showy icons: flightless birds, living fossils.

What does the silver fern represent? In the case of the NZRU it represented greed and mean-spiritedness. In the case of NZTE it represents too much bureaucracy and too little imagination - both strong elements in the national character.

But the most distinctive feature of the fern is the silver on the underside of the foliage, where it cannot easily be seen.

Whatever we choose for our flag, or promote to identify us, it should not be yet another self-effacing symbol that says "Please don't notice us".

* "Cyathea Dealbata Bullets" - what a great marketing opportunity.

- Herald on Sunday

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