Monday, July 30, 2012

Jenny Lind, Elvis Presley, and the Evolution of Property in the US

UCLA law professor Stuart Banner has written American Property, a lively, smart history of how some things have quit being property (human beings, public office, and commons, for instance) and others have become property over the past 300+ years. New forms of property include fame/privacy (your picture), news, certain pollution rights, the electromagnetic spectrum, and many living things.

I think its main value for genealogists lies in seeing how property changes historically, and not in the way we might think. Non-physical property was well understood long ago; physical items like transplantable organs have only recently become in some cases quasi-property. And the changes are usually driven by technology, wealth, politics, and popularity, not legal theory or idealism. And if you want up-to-date, in the final chapter, Banner debunks the idea that information wants to be free.

So I view this as kind of a back-door history that tells us once again, from another angle, how much the past is another country. "Jenny Lind had toured the country in the 1850s without profiting from the sale of Jenny Lind merchandise, but when Elvis Presley toured the country in the 1950s, he likely earned more from licensing fees than from ticket sales." Lind's agent, P. T. Barnum, was fine with unauthorized Lind merchandise, which was just as well since there was no way for him to stop it. Elvis's agent, on the other hand, took unauthorized Elvis purveyors to court and never lost a case. {155} About the same time (mid-19th century), "goodwill" as a business asset and a form of property also came into its own. {38-39}

Stuart Banner, American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)

Harold Henderson, "Jenny Lind, Elvis Presley, and the Evolution of Property in the US," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 30 July 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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