The Private Ownership of People:
Genetics, Consumer Databases
There are three very different ways that humans can be privately owned in contemporary times: first, through patenting human genes and other biological materials; second, through collecting consumer profiles in proprietary databases; and, third, through “right of publicity” law, which protects celebrity images from commercial appropriation. Human gene patenting gives pharmaceutical firms with equipment that can analyze genetic structures the ability to own a human gene as it is isolated from its natural environment or as it exists in pharmaceutical products. This ownership gives those firms a unique power to set the terms for, and reap the benefits from, other independent research on diseases connected with the genes or cell lines they own.
In the case of the consumer, the privatization of one's image is facilitated by corporations that use massive databases to collect personal information such as credit histories, medical histories, debit and credit card purchases, mail orders, and other transactions. The contents of these proprietary databases piece together bits of one's behavior in the marketplace to create a profile of a consumer, resulting in what Lyon labels one's “data image.” 1 Finally, the celebrity's proprietary control over his or her image is secured and maintained through a complex series of case law and legislation that has come to be known as the “right of publicity,” which allows the celebrity to control his or her image within a commercial context.
In the 1990s, large biotech and pharmaceutical companies began investing millions of dollars into wide-scale DNA surveying, something that has