Clayton Moore was the Lone Ranger. He played the masked man for much of the 1950s on television, providing children with what he regarded as a role model for American justice and heroism. We need not worry for the moment about the rightness of that model; Moore sincerely believed in what he was doing, and for years after the cancellation of the show, he continued to make appearances at shopping malls and elsewhere in this role. In the late 1970s, however, the Wrather Corporation, which still owned the rights to the series and the title character, obtained a court injunction that stopped Moore from appearing in his characteristic mask. Because Wrather was negotiating the movie rights for a remake of the Lone Ranger—a movie that flopped at the box office—Moore had to trade in his mask for a pair of sunglasses.
Everyone has his or her favorite example of the extraordinary assertions of intellectual property that have been made in recent decades. There was the effort by the Internet toy marketer Etoys to shut down the avant-garde art website etoy.com, which happened to show sexually explicit art that might upset the young clients of Etoys or their parents. There were attempts in the mid-1990s by the Church of Scientology to limit criticism on the Internet apparently on the basis of the claim that the church's religious documents were trade secrets. (The layperson might well be surprised to learn that a church could have trade secrets; but as we have known since the 1920s that business is the American religion, it is perhaps natural that American religions should also be businesses. ) Finally, there are the ongoing claims for ownership of life forms or of the scientific characterizations of life: patented bacteria and mice and patent claims for the human genome itself. The notion of ownership of intellectual activity seems to be growing stronger and to be extending to more and more domains. It sometimes seems that economic entities in our society have the ultimate goal of copyrighting and branding all representational practice and much of the physical world as well. There may soon be no phrase that we can speak, no mark that we can make on paper or a computer screen, without owing a licensing fee.