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Kembrew McLeod, Freedom of ExpressionTM

1998 [http://www.kembrew.com/]

Kembrew McLeod is a scientist, artist and incidental music critic. Since 2000 he is working as assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, University of Iowa. In 2001 he published Owning Culture. Authorship, Ownership, and Intellectual Property.

Some time earlier, in the beginning of 1998 he trademarked the phrase »Freedom of Expression« (trademark number 2,127,381, issued by the US Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks), thus criticizing the growing privatization and commodification of everyday culture by copyright and trademark law. The fact that he managed to get Freedom of Expression trademarked is, according to McLeod, not less absurd than the protection by intellectual property law of human genes, scents, or business method patents like Amazon.com's »one-click« feature that already exist today.

In order to point to this growing commodification of common goods, Kembrew McLeod staged a media campaign in 1998, in the course of which he – as the legal ower of the trademark Freedom of ExpressionTM – threatened to sue anybody who would use this trademark without his consent. First hit by this threat was an imaginary punk rock magazine (created by McLeod) entitled Freedom of Expression. He enlisted a friend, Brendan Love, to pose as the publisher of this imaginary punk rock magazine, whom he then pretended to sue. McLeod hired a lawyer and didn't let her in on the hoax. The lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to Love: »We represent Kembrew McLeod of Sunderland, Massachusetts, the owner of the federally registered trademark, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ... Your company has been using the mark Freedom of Expression ... Such use creates a likelihood of confusion in the market and also creates a substantial risk of harm to the reputation and goodwill of our client. This letter, therefore, constitutes formal notice of your infringement of our client’s trademark rights and a demand that you refrain from all further use of Freedom of Expression.« Shortly thereafter, the Daily Hampshire Gazette ran an interview with McLeod. He played it straight, telling the paper, »I didn't go to the trouble, the expense and the time of trademarking Freedom of Expression just to have someone else come along and think they can use it whenever they want.«

When the US telecommunications giant AT&T used the term Freedom of Expression in one of its advertisement campaigns in early 2003, McLeod sent the company a cease-and desist-letter, requesting the company to refrain from using his trademark without his consent.

McLeod’s framed »Freedom of Expression« certificate was part of the exhibition Illegal Art. Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age touring the United States in 2003. Illegal Art contained art which tested the limits of intellectual property law and showed its absurdity in the field of art and culture as a whole (see www.illegal-art.org/).

See also: Kembrew McLeod, Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Threats to Creativity, Doubleday 2005 (forthcoming)

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