Below is my column this week in USA Today (the print version will run Wednesday while the web-version ran today). We have been following the increasingly draconian copyright and trademark laws used against citizens and companies — laws secured by an army of lobbyists, lawyers, and an obedient Congress and White House. The impetus of the piece is the Myriad case to be heard on Monday, where the Supreme Court will have to decide whether a company can patent human genes. The company argues that it took considerable research to isolate the genes associated with breast cancer and that patent protection gives companies like Myriad to do such extensive research and development. For many others, the patent claim represents a virtual franchising of the human body – giving companies claim to something that exists in nature. It also gives these companies a critical gatekeeper control on research into key components of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, and other health threats. While this column deals with statutory expansions of private property claims over genes, common phrases and images, there is an equal expansion occurring in the common law, including the “misappropriation of name or likeness.” Perhaps the most infamous such authority can be found in the case of White v. Samsung. In this case, Vanna White sued Samsung over a commercial that showed a robot with a blonde wig turning cards in a game show. It was an obvious parody but the federal court found the image of a blonde who did nothing but smile and turn large cards belongs exclusively to White.
This column is meant to show that there is a broader problem in the rush to claim common material, images, and terms. Perhaps it was inevitable that with the ever expanding patent, copyright, and trademark laws, mankind itself would become a form of property: the ultimate evolution from creator to object.
This week, the Supreme Court will consider whether a company can claim ownership of two human genes under a patent. Myriad Genetics currently holds a patent to two genes associated with breast cancer. The case challenges the long-held position of Congress that people can patent “anything under the sun that is made by man.” The case raises significant moral and legal issues as companies claim parts of the human genome as their property. Currently twenty percent of your genes are now claimed as private property. This case is part of an overall trend of claims over virtually every basic term, symbol, and now human genes under the sun. Human existence is being privatized to the point that a creative existence seems to require the consent of a new class of property overloads.
While Myriad Genetics argues that is only seeking to reap the rewards of its extensive research and development, others view its claim as a virtual franchising of the human body. The Myriad case raises fundamental questions on the meaning of property, including the treatment of the human genome as akin to a Hoover vacuum. Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine, was once asked if he owned the patent on this valuable vaccine. Salk famously replied in disbelief by asking “Could you patent the sun?” He said such things must belong “to the people.”
Today, most things under the sun (including images of the sun) seem claimed by patent, copyright, or trademark holders. Apple Computers even sued a grocery chain for using an apple as its symbol. While God may have created the apple, he failed to trademark it.
It has triggered a type of land rush as everyone grabs objects, expressions, and names like settlers carving up free land. This year, the Prince George’s County Board of Education moved to claim copyright to work created by staff and students that would include everything from a teacher’s lesson plan to a toddler’s finger painting project. Then there is Robert and Diane Maresca of Long Island who claimed “Occupy Wall Street” as a trademark as soon as the protest began. They were not part of the protests, mind you. They just wanted to make money off it and Robert Maresca insisted “if I didn’t buy it and use it, someone else will.”
Other terms from “Linsanity” to “Who Dat?” to the word “Yuuup” have been claimed. This often results in fights over the spoils of common terms. Last year, Roy Fox secured a copyright to the term “Harbowl” last year to make money off a Superbowl between the Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. He was then muscled out by NFL lawyers insisting that no one can use the term “Bowl” but them.
As terms and images are grabbed in this mad rush, the laws have become the very inverse of their intended use. Rather than protecting inventions to encourage and reward creativity, these laws now restrict creative thought and invention with layers copyright, trademark, and patent claims. Interestingly, citizens find themselves traveling through a world where everything they see has a TM or © sign to signify the owner of items and expressions around them. The Susan G. Komen charity fund has repeatedly threatened lawsuits against other charities seeking to raise money with the words “for the cure.”
The Obama Administration has been criticized for yielding to the demands of lobbyists for higher and higher penalties, including criminal penalties, over such infringements. The Administration recently intervened in the Supreme Court to defend the ruinous fine of $222,000 imposed on a young Minnesota mother for sharing 24 songs. The Court refused to review a $675,000 fine against former college student Joel Tenenbaum for downloading and sharing 30 songs.
We have come a long way from men like Salk who viewed most things as properly owned in common by the people. It was only a matter of time that with people claiming everything under the Sun, they would soon direct their interest to people themselves as a type of chattel to be claimed. As the Supreme Court deliberates over the very ownership of our genes, there has never been a national debate over the commoditization of American life. If we do not want to live by the leave of a new property class, we have fight for our rights. Just be careful in how you say it. “Fight for your rights” is trademarked.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.