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This Baby Brought to You By

Should expectant parents be allowed to sell naming rights to their baby? That was the question that came up in a dinner party conversation last weekend; the informal betting was that we will see this happening by the end of the decade. It’s a semi-serious possibility, and the question is whether ethics or policy should or will intervene. If regulation follows, what form should it take?

First, consider the possible forms that the practice could take: “Sarah, from Pampers.” “Asha, from Coke.” “Michael, from Nike.” Or children could be named “adidas” or “Gatorade”; the parents could bank college tuition up front. Ten years ago, I had a student who named her child Starbuck, a la Moby Dick. Now I wonder whether she left money on the table.

Second, consider the shape of the deals. Rights could be time-limited, so that they expire after some term of years, or perhaps on the child’s maturity. The child could have the option to renew, again for a time-limited period or perhaps in perpetuity. “Reach-through” naming might arise but present a problem; children might object if grandparents endowed them with covenants that required certain (sponsored) names for their own offspring. Fees could be fixed (with discounts for payment up front), or they could be payable periodically, perhaps on a sliding scale. Nike the company would pay more if Nike the child got accepted to Stanford, for example, or for lesser but still remarkable accomplishments. Named captain of the debate team? Little Nabisco would score some extra bucks for his folks.

Third, there are some IP complications to work out. Naming rights for children sound more than a little like domain names. What if you name your kid Nike but don’t get Nike’s permission? Is the mother of Starbuck at risk of some kind of baby-name-squatting claim? Priority issues would arise (Pepsi #1, Pepsi #2, and so forth; Pepsi would need to consider its baby portfolio in calculating how much it could spend on rights). Appropriation issues ensue (if you endow your child with a name that is substantially similar to that of a sponsored child, can the sponsor sue?). And what about last names and middle names and naming conventions in other cultural (non-American) contexts?

From an IP perspective, most of this seems pretty unexciting, if not uncomplicated, and it’s the progression of IP into nearly all aspects of daily life that prompted our idle speculation last weekend. If identity can be owned, as in some kinds of privacy and publicity contexts, then why can’t identity be sold or licensed? There is the usual commodification/propertization question, but it seems to me that society allows (even encourages) so much objectification and commodification of identity that taking this step is likely to be unremarkable.

I wonder, however, about family law and commercial law. If the parents sell the rights, do the parents get to enforce them? Do the parents get the money, or do they hold it, perhaps in trust, for the child? What happens if the parents get divorced? Remarried? What if the playground decides that the licensed name isn’t cool, and the kid picks up a nickname (or the reverse — the kid picks up a nickname that “belongs” to a corporate sponsor)? And corporate sponsors may die, or merge. Do kids get new names, as sports stadiums do?

I haven’t exhausted the possibilities here. Ah, the brave new world of IP.

3 thoughts on “This Baby Brought to You By”

  1. On the flip side–what if the TM-owner tries to enjoin the naming of the child with its TM? They might think: “oh no, Nabisco may be diluted if it becomes a popular name!” I knew someone named Chardonnay, which might bring up some interesting geographical appellation issues.

    I think, in the product placement arena, companies started by warning moviemakers *not* to make unauthorized use of their products in films…of course, now they pay for it. (Ellen Goodman’s article on Stealth Marketing has some fascinating analyses of this issue.)

    Another marker of cultural change: people no longer being named after saints, but after the leading (and not-so-obscure) objects of desire of consumer culture.

  2. Interestingly enough, you don’t have to wait until the end of the decade to see this happen, as something quite similar has already happened. Acclaim, a now-defunct videogame company that was infamous for its bizarre marketing stunts, started a contest where expecting parents could enter a contest to win $10,000. If their child was the first one born on a specific date and the parents were willing to legally name their newborn child “Turok” for a year, the parents would be given $10,000 in savings bonds. A copy of their original press release can be found here:

    Needless to say, the contest created a firestorm of bad publicity for the company, although I seem to remember hearing at at least one family did enter the contest and actually did name their child Turok for a year. So while ethics did intervene, it did not appear to be a very successful intervention. (The company ultimately went bankrupt because of very poor sales, but it’s an open question about whether it was due to bad publicity or just bad games.)

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