You probably don’t think about intellectual property laws when you go shopping or watch the World Cup or surf the web, if ever. Yet the stuff we covet is governed by rules that have developed over hundreds of years around the world, which dictate what is made and sold, how, and for how much money.
The new book, A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects, examines these dictates through the lens of iconic items that have influenced global culture. Released in June by Cambridge University Press, this collection of 50 essays on everything from ancient Korean clay-glazing techniques to Coca Cola bottles, Post-It notes, and internet protocols takes an unusual and accessible approach to its opaque topic. It’s a fun look at legal and consumer history in a bright, beautiful, and glossy book whose form is itself a testament to humanity’s long love of objects and the culture’s current obsession with Instagrammable images and stories.
The text is designed to be read by anyone however they want. The collection’s editors—Claudy Op den Kamp and Dan Hunter—urge readers to take liberties. “We rely on your own contribution and creativity here in carving your own path through these stories,” they write. You can consume the book from beginning to end for a chronological understanding of developments, read according to themes, flip through randomly, or pick out your favorite things, like Ferragamo wedges or footballs, say.
Whoever you are, you’ll surely find an item in the collection that has influenced your life. Aspirin, perhaps? Objects are the focus because they are “shortcuts to the social implications” of the law, reflect the ideologies behind intellectual property regimes, are tangible, and serve as metaphors for the more abstract innovations governed by these rules, the editors explain. Together, the 50 things illuminated in the book show how laws governing branding, copyright, design, trade secrets, and patents can end up both benefiting and harming consumers. Two popular items in the book—a Chanel handbag and the common football (or soccer ball, for Americans)—highlight some of the upsides and downsides of these rules.
The copycat paradox
Take the iconic Chanel 2.55 handbag (pictured above). Released in February 1955 (hence the name 2.55), the purse is highly coveted to this day. An original in lambskin and crocodile embossed calfskin sells for $6,200 on the Chanel site. A fake, sold throughout New York City by street vendors, sells for about $50 to $100, depending on the quality.
The purse is a perfect example of how trademark, which protects brand names and logos, and copyright, which protects designs, create value. Chanel generates billions of dollars every year based on its intellectual property. Meanwhile, copycat 2.55 purses and other imitations paradoxically enhance the brand’s worth by making the relatively inaccessible popular among the masses and rendering originals practically magical.
Designer Coco Chanel wasn’t much of a stickler for intellectual property law herself. In the mid 20th century, she released sketches of her works ahead of shows and wanted people who couldn’t afford her haute couture items to buy imitations. As long as they thought of Chanel, she was happy. She sought to be copied–and her wish was granted.
Chanel died in 1971. By the 1980s, imitations of her small, rectangular quilted purse with its long chain-link shoulder strap were everywhere, as the book’s essay about the bag by Harvard Law School professor Jeanie Suk Gersen explains. In the 1990s, the house of Chanel was spending millions of dollars annually to fight trademark and copyright violations, even succeeding in getting an American business owned by a woman named Chanel Jones to change its name from “Chanel’s Salon.” The company sent letters (one of which appears in the book) to “fashion editors, advertisers, copywriters and other well-intentioned misusers of our name” reminding them that a thing cannot be Chanel-esque or Chanel-ish if it isn’t made by Chanel. “And even if we are flattered by such tributes to our fame,” the missives explain, “PLEASE DON’T. Our lawyers positively detest them. We take our trademarks seriously.”
Although Chanel perceived imitation as a form of flattery, the corporation’s attorneys understand that in order for the brand to maintain its exclusivity, they must fight imitators and protect the iconic name and style. Still, Gersen argues that the proliferation of copycat Chanel bags also helped to cement the desirability of the 2.55 globally. “The bag is both the paradigmatic original and the archetypal copy—an embodiment not only of authentic and rarified luxury, but also of fairness, repetition, reproduction, and substitution,” she writes.
The world’s most popular object
An essay on the football (or the soccer ball in American English) shows how developments of new materials changed an ancient game and intellectual property laws cemented the relatively new norms that are now standard. Games involving kicking balls can be traced back to ancient China, Greece, and Rome. In 16th century Europe, “footballe” was played by laborers and aristocrats alike, men and women. Then, in 1863 in England, the Football Association was born, and with it the standardized game played globally today really took shape. (Interestingly, the word soccer is a shortened form of the word “association”).
In 1866, the association specified which type of ball to use in football: the Lillywhite No. 5, made of vulcanized rubber, a material Charles Goodyear patented in the US in 1844. And the “No. 5 ball” is still the colloquial name for a standard adult football, points out University of Pittsburgh law professor Michael Madison in his essay. By 1872, the size and shape of the football were finalized and they haven’t changed much since—worldwide, the association’s 19th century dictates still govern the game though there have been some modifications to the object.
“Openness and innovation underpinned the growth of football in its early phases but exclusivity and market capitalism were equally important to the game we know as football today,” Madison writes. Over the years, ball producers patented different spheres with variations in the number of panels. In 1962, a Danish player-turned-inventor, Eigil Nielsen, developed a 32-panel ball with hexagonal and pentagonal panels. That design was modified by Adidas, which introduced the black and white paneled balls that were used in the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico and are now ubiquitous. Ever since, Adidas has had the sole exclusive contract to supply official balls to the World Cup, a deal secured through 2030.
Madison argues that systems of exclusivity, like patents and contracts, create social benefits. The promise of lucrative designs and deals have inspired companies to innovate and invest in improvements which end up benefitting all players, professional or recreational. But he notes, too, that the actual producers of the balls—the children who still hand-stitch some balls for little pay in factories in Pakistan, say—don’t share in the wealth that flows to companies that secure exclusive contracts for major competitions.
The law professor contends that the intellectual property history of the football—arguably the most popular object in the world—follows a pattern seen in other objects. Initially, there is much innovation, openness, and growth as new materials and production methods are invented. Soon, standardization sets in, which prompts more improvements on the original object as companies try to differentiate themselves with small innovations. And finally, Madison writes, “almost inevitably” wealth is produced due to these intellectual property laws that protect innovations and lead to exclusive deals for certain companies.
To understand the soccer ball, then, is to understand the history of modern objects, he says. Indeed, Madison’s thesis is to some degree the argument of the whole book. If we understand the development of the things we use, whether they are tangible, like a purse or soccer ball, or as abstract and invisible to us as internet protocols, we can start to make sense of where we’re heading culturally and what the future of our stuff holds.