Where do Intellectual Property and Personal Information Intersect?

by Kevin Bedell

Now, to begin with you have to understand that I know nothing about copyright or trademark laws. But I have this idea that's nagging at me. Maybe I'm crazy.


The idea is this: Can I copyright or trademark my personal information? You know, my personal combination of "Name, Address, telephone, e-mail, etc". The basic personal information that everyone asks for.


Then, if I can do that, can I gain control over who uses it? Can I control who buys it, sells it or gives it away? Could I gain the same rights over my personal information that publishers have over the lyrics on a soundtrack?


Why not?


If major corporations can keep people from using their name, why can't I?


Sure there's likely to be more than one Kevin Bedell, but not more than one with my Social Security number. If I could get copyright control over that combination then why wouldn't I have the same rights as other intellectual property holders?


It just seems one-sided that a film publisher can send the FBI after me if I make a single copy of a DVD, but they can track all my purchases and visits to their website and sell my personal information to anyone, anywhere for as much as they want for as long as they want. Why don't I have laws protecting my information the way they have laws protecting theirs?


How can I get that kind of leverage?


Even if I can't copyright my personal information, why can't I copyright a name - say, "Kevin Bedell #1" or something - and use that information whenever I fill out forms? I could say that was my "trade name" and copyright it. Why not?


Some creative mind with the right knowledge is somewhere I know it. Someone can come up with the right spin on this. Maybe I have to incorporate. Maybe I have to publish my personal information in a book or something to get rights to it.


Imagine that. I could publish a book with only one page - containing only my personal information. (I could do it electronically.) I could include a copyright designation. Then, no one could use that information without my consent. Right?


Then we could build a web site with a form to fill out and it would publish/copyright your information. We could get 10,000 people to do this - and then have them all fill out Warranty cards for the same product and bring a class action suit against the manufacturer if they resell the information. That would turn heads - and change behavior if we were right.


Maybe I need a version of the information I use only when conducting business (something like appending the "#1" as in the example above). Then I could restrict use of that information for business transactions. My 'personal' identity would be free to use - but only if you knew it. If you want to use the info I put on the form I filled out (my 'business' identity) then it's under copyright.


I know this seems crazy, but why not? The laws should protect all of us - there has to be some twist I haven't thought of yet that would make it possible...


It's time we tried to stand up and take back some of the control we've lost or given away. How can we use existing laws to do it?






Am I crazy?


10 Comments

charliebrown
2002-12-23 16:58:11
two likely reality checks
1. You may not be able to copyright your personal information since they are facts. (But you might be able to trademark them.)


2. You can afford the legal cost to enforce your personal copyrights & trademarks? Me neither. Advantage Them, again.

kbedell
2002-12-24 06:19:02
two likely reality checks
I can't afford to enforce this on my own, but if enough people do this then a class action suit would be possible.
adamrice
2002-12-24 11:26:45
I like the idea, but...
Apart from the obious big-money vs small-money problem, I know (in a vague way--IANAL) that, say, the phone book publisher can claim to have a copyright on the format of your information in their database. Although case law is public domain, Westlaw has a copyright on the pagination that serves as a de-facto standard for referring to laws.


I've long felt that we should "own our own information," and I can imagine some kind of futuristic hellspawn of DRM and the old finger protocol where anyone who wanted to contact us or make use of our personal info had to access a file and find out whether they were allowed to, and if so, how much they had to pay us for the privilige.


I'm not the only one to have this idea (check out:
http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,3973,763780,00.asp)


I'm sure the phone company, if push came to shove, would claim they "own" our phone numbers, which we use under an implicit license from them. Our street addresses? City property perhaps. SSN? Public records. In the end, there may be almost nothing we can call our own except our names.

kbedell
2002-12-24 12:42:51
I like the idea, but...
Thanks for responding.


I agree that in the end we "own" virtually nothing. But can't we lay claim to putting the pieces (phone number, e-mail, address, etc) together in a unique way? Can we "own" the combination of name, address and phone number? Surely the phone company doesn't own the combination...


My main goal in writing this was to open up the possibility. My hope is that someone will see this and suddenly put the thoughts together in a way that hasn't been done before.


If I ask the question, maybe someone else will have the answer - isn't that how Open Source works anyway (one person characterizes the problem, someone else proposes a fix)?


Also, I was hoping to get people to look at their personal information as something that they have control over - or at least something that might be worth finding a way to have control over.

anonymous2
2002-12-24 14:54:23
problems

someone pointed out that you might not be able to copyright this information because they are facts. It is of course true that you cannot copyright your name because it is a fact but all your personal details together could be argued as being a compendium of data and therefore copyrightable, however if corporations have harvested this information, or if you have given this information out in the past without explicitly stating that you retain the copyright on said information then obviously it is no longer protectable, especially when we consider how any corporation compiling this information would have absolutely no reason to assume that it was copyrighted, seeing as how such information very seldomly is.


The idea of using "MY Name#1" has merit, especially as it used to be possible(don't know if it still is as I don't live in the U.S) for an U.S citizen to use another name than their given one in transactions etc. as long as this was done without any intent to defraud.


Another problem is of course that your actual name, place of residence, etc. is a matter of public record and as such not your property, it is the property of the public.



So let us suppose this we had a compendium of information like this:


Identies Registry


Member
name: Bryan Corneil
identity: Bryan Corneil129
identity-uses:1,5,17


with the numerical sequence 1,5 and 17 delineating specific commercial interactions in which you have stated your intention to use the identity Bryan Corneil129, this information when combined with other members in a compendium would indeed be copyrightable, although only so far as that no one could get ahold of this compendium and get your information out and redistribute it.


If someone "reverse engineers" your member information then they can go ahead and redistribute it, however as I suppose we are all aware most threats of suits are made not because they are ironclad but because the other party isn't going to win much by fighting it.


The trademark idea has some merit but that, in conjunction with incorporation may seem somewhat expensive for the individual.


"Then we could build a web site with a form to fill out and it would publish/copyright your information. We could get 10,000 people to do this - and then have them all fill out Warranty cards for the same product and bring a class action suit against the manufacturer if they resell the information. That would turn heads - and change behavior if we were right. "


the manufacturer would be well within their rights to resell any information you submitted to them, unless in filling out the warranty card there was the possibility of specifying a contractual limitation to the submission such that one could prevent the redistribution of information. I suppose that this would mainly depend on the layout of the warranty card and the language of the card, if the card was imprecise enough one could perhaps cause a ruckus, I do not think I have seen any such card where one would have this possibility however.

bry
2002-12-24 15:16:45
problems
okay logged in now to take this a little further:



there is one thing that one would have some chance of working, the organization which holds the information on all members, let us call it org1, could conduct the following campaign:


1. Gather enough members to be a force to be reckoned with, 10,000 would be more than enough.


2. Contact corporations and ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding any information submitted by a member of org1. This may need a naming standard from org1, so that member names on forms etc. become Bryan Corneilorg1-136 or whatever.


3. Some companies agree, being companies that do not sell customer information on to marketing firms. Org1 members can always check if a particular company is an org1 certified company.


4. If companies violate org1 agreement they can be sued, they have after all signed a contract. And org1 will have the financial ability to make its suits stick.


5. Org1 could also expand its powers and put pressure on companies to join by pointing out to financial reporting firms etc. that org1 members, likely to be in upper middle class income brackets, do not shop with companies that report information, thereby affecting the bottom line, a process most likely to escalate.


Okay, that's the most non-realistic scheme I've come up with in a while but there you have it.

anonymous2
2002-12-26 17:29:45
Lie?
Another angle: investigate and publicize the laws regarding when lying is fraudulent. (I can't afford a lawyer, but I'd like to know.)


Rather than attempting to control, contain and enforce the use of your personal information, or even attempting to erase it and appear not to exist, try to make yourself appear everywhere in different guises. Ride the spectrum from correct info, to partially correct info, to completely false info. (I know it's not the same as your initial proposal, but it's cheap, achievable and fun!)


Since I began lying, I've found dataveillance and CRM to be a lot more fun than I ever imagined they could be. Invent a character. Change sex. Make way more money! Experiment with your sexuality. Give yourself a medical degree! (I can't remember who, but some large provider of services thinks I'm an MD. Top tip: if you are an MD you get much better service and are treated with more respect. Just move to the front of the line and refrain from practicing medicine.)


I think you will be surprised to find that lying is almost never illegal. From what I understand, lying is only illegal if you do it to defraud someone. Lying about personal data when you buy something is not illegal (although it can be counterproductive when you need something delivered.)


My name is Dr. Brian O. Blivion. I own a mansion and a yacht.

kbedell
2002-12-27 08:22:26
Lie?
You evilness is only surpassed by your brilliance.
adamrice
2003-01-06 21:35:36
Lie?
Hey, what's good for the goose must be good for the gander. Take a gander at this:
http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0101-07.htm
JackD
2005-07-05 16:12:36
My answer to controlling your name and personal data
Interesting you should bring this up. I've been working on a concept for over ten years.


The answer is to pass federal legislation giving consumers 100% control over their name and personal data. Let them opt-in, rather than having to opt-out, of receiving junk mail. This would include the use of the warranty card data and other non-junk mail compiling of our names and private information. While eliminating identity theft, we can also force the junk mailers to share in the sale of our names and private information, amounting to over $4 billion each year.


Bold, original, even outrageous…but a workable plan.


I've made a complete case on my blog, The Dunning Letter at: http://www.thedunningletter.blogspot.com.


Keep up the good work!


Jack E. Dunning