Owning Culture: Authorship, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Law

By Kembrew McLeod | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

The Private Ownership of Culture

This book demonstrates how the fabric of social life in most Western countries—and increasingly, the world—is becoming more deeply immersed in the domain of intellectual property law. Intellectual property law has expanded to allow for a number of bemusing and sometimes disturbing scenarios. For instance, Mrs. Smith's (the multimillion dollar food corporation) threatened to sue Mrs. Bacon (the owner of a small St. Petersburg, Florida bakery) for her unauthorized use of the phrase “old fashioned,” which Mrs. Smith's had trademarked. 1 In another example, Human Genome Sciences has patented over 100 human genes or gene fragments that are connected to various diseases, 2 and AOL/Time-Warner owns the song “Happy Birthday to You” and polices its public use. 3 And, in the most wacky and postmodern of ironies, Kraft Foods Inc. owns the trademark to “real” in conjunction with cheese, even though the vegetable oil laden, individually wrapped foodstuff slices they market certainly do not fit the definition of real cheese. Furthermore, Kraft Foods Inc. can use intellectual property law to prevent other food companies that make cheese that is genuinely real from using that marker of authenticity!

I hope that my narrative about trademarking freedom of expression® in the preface to this book was not simply an exercise in self-indulgence; it touched on many of the central points here. First, like all property law, intellectual property law reinforces a condition whereby individuals and corporations with greater access to capital can maintain and increase unequal social relations. Corporations stake their claims on many areas of culture because they can easily afford to pay for numerous $245 application fees, something ordinary people like myself most certainly cannot do. While $245 may not seem to be a huge amount of money that is out of reach for many people, the cost of registering hundreds of thousands of trademarks is. This makes the privatization of culture an activity that only large corporations can engage in. Perhaps more important than the

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