Dead Man Earning

The first of many tangents: In class today we talked briefly about what constitutes identity. From names and logos to trade dress, architecture, language and attitude, identity is a complex and nebulous web of sensory cues. We talked about how Mohammed Ali (a living celebrity) sold 80% of his identity to the Core Media Group — the same company that owns the Elvis’ identity (a dead celebrity). Following OJ Simpson’s civil trail for the wrongful death of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, Goldman’s father attempted (unsuccessfully) to acquire Simpson’s identity as part of the jury’s punitive judgement against the football-star-turned-murderer. The technical term for this kind of ownership is “Personality Rights” (often referred to as “Rights of Publicity”). In some states these rights can extend beyond the life of the personality in question, leading celebrities like Paul McCartney to try to protect their post-mortem likenesses before they die. Interestingly, the professional likeness of a celebrity is viewed as a form of copyright (“original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression“) which aligns such likenesses legally and conceptually with the the protections afford to original works of graphic design, including—perhaps especially—identity design.

As we continue our investigation about the constitution of identity, it may be interesting to consider these parallels as a means of framing the scope of our exploration. Anyway, here’s the NPR interview I was listening to on the way to class.