The enclosure of our common language

Read and weep, and then resist!!

Excerpt from a report in The Star from Canada, by James Motluk:

“Recently, private interests have been using trademark and copyright laws to fence off large chunks of our common language

Last year, in an attempt to wrestle a few pennies of the GST from the tight-fisted grip of the federal government, the City of Toronto launched a snazzy public relations campaign under the banner “one cent now.”

Unfortunately, before they could enjoy the fruits of their labour, they were slapped with a cease-and-desist order by the Royal Canadian Mint.

The dispute was over the phrase “one cent.” It turns out it is not in the public domain. For the privilege of using it, the City of Toronto needed to pay the mint more than $47,000 in licensing fees, something it neglected to do.

It was an honest oversight. After all, who would have thought a corporation, private or public, could own a phrase so common to everyday language? You might be surprised.

Imagine the Toronto Star one day decides to advertise that it provides “fair and balanced” coverage of the news only to find themselves in court because the phrase “fair and balanced” is owned by Fox News. It might sound far-fetched – except that Fox actually owns the trademark to that phrase.

You might be tempted to argue that all this is an attack on “freedom of expression.”

Of course, you would soon discover that the phrase, “freedom of expression,” is owned by a University of Iowa communications professor named Kembrew McLeod. He took out the trademark to prove an ironic point.

Language and culture in our modern world are defined as intellectual property. Like all property, they can be bought and sold. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Creators need to have their works and brands protected so they can earn a living and continue creating.

But recently, private interests, like the Royal Canadian Mint, have been using trademark and copyright laws to fence off large chunks of our common culture. All this is sending a chill through the artistic and academic communities. In order to create new works, artists need to build upon works from the past. But if the current trend holds, the past may soon be out of reach for all but a privileged few with deep pockets. ”

3 Comments The enclosure of our common language

  1. AvatarMushin Schilling

    In Germany common phrases cannot be copyrighted – I’m happy that there is still some sanity around here 🙂

  2. AvatarMushin Schilling

    Hmmm – got me thinking. Now what if all you English speakers publish your two cents worth or “one cent” or “freedom of expression” in Germany and then export all that to Canada or wherever. Or if your companies have their main seat in, say, Berlin?

    Ahh, obviously I’m not a lawyer 🙂

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