Not Your Granddaddy's IP

 Even beatniks have rights.

Even beatniks have rights.

Read a good book lately? If you flipped a few pages in, you probably saw a small copyright notice. Watched an episode of Shark Tank? You may have heard an inventor excitedly describe their patents, trying to start a bidding war. Planning to tune into the Super Bowl? The sheer volume of registered trademark symbols on the logos might make you light-headed before halftime.

As content consumers, we are generally familiar with the intellectual property protections available to writers, musicians, product developers, and sports leagues. But what about less mainstream creators? While some find remedy in the law, others must carve out protections elsewhere.

Consider hair. Styling is an art, and hairdos all across the country are crafted by experienced, licensed practitioners who apprenticed and studied their way behind the chair. Occasionally, a stylist will be lucky enough to create an iconic look such as the beehive, the fade, the moptop, the undercut, or the Rachel. These artists may not always be able to protect their intellectual property in the actual haircut, but they can certainly patent any technology they have invented to help you achieve that perfect look. For example the Bumpit, as seen on TV, patented since 2009.

Anyone can make a cheese cracker, but woe unto he who incurs the wrath of Pepperidge Farms by shaping that cheese cracker like a fish.

Meanwhile, in restaurants, chefs are having a moment as the internet and basic cable spread foodie particularity to every hamlet with a Main Street. Many people are surprised to discover these innovators possess few legal rights to their creations, as recipes are considered such a basic aspect of culture that they are not subject to copyright or patent. No wonder many chefs are increasingly protective of their food presentation, one creative aspect they argue they can protect, as dining rooms increasingly move to ban food photography in an attempt to safeguard their designer plating. Lawsuits regarding plating are increasingly common in America and around the world, as a chef’s unique vision can be spread from one continent to another before you can say “Instagram.”

 Famous clown Emmett Kelly has been depicted on an egg, despite having been an American.

Famous clown Emmett Kelly has been depicted on an egg, despite having been an American.

In the United Kingdom, clowns have long banded together as a community to avoid redundancy in their individual face makeup design, by maintaining a privately held registry… of painted eggs. These eggs, each expertly illustrated by hand in the unique style of Britain’s most accomplished clowns, are kept on public display in an East End museum, housed inside a church. The collection is known to merrymakers worldwide simply as “The Clown’s Gallery.” An egg registry now also exists in the United States, where intellectual property rights in clown makeup are similarly unestablished. The world of clowning is relatively small, so this type of cooperative norms enforcement works more effectively than contentious, and potentially unaffordable, litigation.

 Clubs such as LA's iconic The Comedy Store are sometimes said to display a special light to comics on stage when a known joke thief enters the building.

Clubs such as LA's iconic The Comedy Store are sometimes said to display a special light to comics on stage when a known joke thief enters the building.

The laughs are just as hearty, but the stakes much steeper, in the high dollar world of stand-up comedy. The guy chasing yuks at your local pub may rake in $50 on a good night, but at the top of the heap comedy generates millions every year for television executives, late night hosts, and elite comics. A top, household name professional comic might produce 20 minutes of solid material in a year. Therefore, the theft of even a single joke can represent a substantial portion of a comic’s annual output. (That George Carlin was able to churn out hour long specials year after year is part of why he will always be considered a comedy god.) A mere ten years ago, disputes over joke theft were likely to be handled almost entirely through community enforced methods such as banishment from clubs, or even getting roughed up in the parking lot. But as the monetary value of jokes continues to increase, lawsuits over joke theft are beginning to dot the landscape, and judges are holed up in their chambers contemplating the relative originality of competing Caitlyn Jenner jokes.

 Mike Tyson's famous tattoo that started it all.

Mike Tyson's famous tattoo that started it all.

Finally, tattoos used to be an ultimate mark of life on the cultural fringe (one of P.T. Barnum’s “freaks” literally just had a bunch of tattoos), but these days about 1/3 of American adults sport some ink. While tattoo artists expect their work to wander the world in full public view, they are reticent to allow others to profit off their designs. In one suit that settled, the creator of Mike Tyson’s iconic tribal face tattoo sued the producers of the hit film “The Hangover 2” for precisely replicating his work, as a key plot point, without permission. As a result of this and similar actions, many celebrities who hope their distinctive ink will become part of their personal brand now seek copyright waivers from their tattoo artists as a standard part of the transaction.

Learn more about the weird world of intellectual property on the margins through these links: