Amidst all the flap about Ron Paul trying to take control of ronpaul.com through the ICANN dispute resolution procedures, an interesting argument has surfaced: namely, that Ron Paul’s name is his “intellectual property,” and he is within his (natural, libertarian) rights to control its use.
Most arguments for “intellectual property” center on the act of creation, and the rights of the creator to his work. I don’t see how those can possibly apply here: the name “Ron Paul” was not created by Ron Paul. If anything, his parents are the “authors” of that name; but it must be acknowledged that they conformed to a social convention by giving him the surname “Paul”. At most, they attached “Ronald Ernest,” and neither of these is a particularly unusual name. Not even unusual connected to “Paul” — a glance at the telephone directory reveals over 100 Ron Pauls, and 92 Ernest Pauls.So, we must ask what it means to “own” your name. Can “the” Ron Paul use his name to identify himself? Certainly. No one has interfered with that.Can “the” Ron Paul control the use of his name so that others may not use it? Certainly not! Ron Paul has no right to tell other parents surnamed Paul that they may not name their child “Ron.” And he has no right to sue the other 100+ Ron Pauls in the United States, telling them that they may not use that name.Here in a nutshell is the distinction between “use” and “control,” a distinction which many “intellectual property” advocates tend to blur. Ron Paul owns his name in the sense that he may use it as he sees fit — for his medical practice, for his political campaigns, or even to market the Ron Paul Supercharged Dildo if that is his fancy. And no other Ron Paul has the right to stop him, as embarassing as it might be for them.But Ron Paul does not own his name in the sense that he may exclude others from using it. If, say, Ron Paul in Minnesota decides to enter the sexual-accessories business, Ron Paul the ex-congressman has no right to stop him from using his own name.Trademark law is largely an attempt to force the rules and limitations of tangible property (exclusive use) onto intangible constructs (like a name). And, as Ron Paul has nicely illustrated for us, those rules don’t fit. To the extent that “property” means “control” or “exclusion,” then no, a name cannot be property.