Forebears for Sale

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‘Who owns the past?’ (or some variation) is a common question in debates and disputes involving heritage. Here’s a similar question from the world of intellectual property law: ‘Who owns a family’s history?’

The Borghese family is a prestigious Italian family whose lineage can be traced back hundreds of years. [...] In the 1950s, Princess Marcella Borghese partnered with Revlon to launch a cosmetics company bearing her name. By 1976, Revlon owned the company outright, having purchased Princess Marcella’s remaining interest from her. [...] Among the IP included in the acquisition by Revlon were
“the words and phrases BORGHESE, MARCELLA BORGHESE, PRINCESS MARCELLA BORGHESE, and all … variations thereof, whether used as a personal name, trade name or trademark,”
as well as an exclusive licence to the Borghese family history and crest.

As commentary in the linked article suggests, one might have thought that ‘a family history, to the extent there are even any underlying IP rights, would belong jointly to all members of the family’. Though I’m fascinated by the notion that I could buy (okay, exclusively license) someone else’s family history if, I suppose, I were dissatisfied with my own. (What would you do with such a thing? Well, collect them, of course. Have a different family history for each day of the week...)

Some of the debates about ‘cultural appropriation’ have been about who gets to tell the story or stories of a (usually indigenous) group of people. One of the matters at stake is that the ‘issue of privacy can be particularly sensitive when we are dealing with the representation of small cultures. Some Indigenous cultures are often very like extended families.’1 Perhaps the logical corollary is that some families are like small cultures.

Maybe it’s only a matter of time until ‘kitchen table lingo’ becomes protected as a form of traditional cultural expression.

  1. James O. Young and Susan Haley, ‘“Nothing Comes from Nowhere”: Reflections on Cultural Appropriation as the Representation of Other Cultures’, in James O. Young and Conrad G. Brunk (eds.), The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation (2009, Oxford: Blackwell), p. 281.

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