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Intellectual property law and policy, cultural sociology, economic sociology, sociology of law, social theory
Properties of Color: How Corporations Came to Own the Visible Spectrum
Is it possible for a corporation to own a color? This dissertation shows the surprising answer to be yes as it traces color’s assimilation into the intellectual property regime over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning with the invention of synthetic dye production during the Second Industrial Revolution and concluding with the U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting single color trademarks in 1995, it examines the “properties” color has in different times and for different groups of people and how these properties were turned into property. Using color as a laboratory, the project also develops a new theoretical framework for the study of “propertization”—the process by which unowned things are made into property for the first time. It proposes that two types of normative distinctions underpin the start of legitimate chains of transfer in the form of property: 1) classification—the determination of legitimate objects of property rights; and 2) attribution—the determination of legitimate subjects of property rights.
Applying this framework to disputes in elementary-school classrooms, industrial chemical laboratories, artists’ studios, WWI battlefields, the floor of the Supreme Court, and the odd Chicago-area dry cleaner, the comparative historical analysis highlights the many ways that color becomes embedded in institutional regimes of valuation and appropriation—whether it be a matter of cultural significance, aesthetic taste, or the manufacture, marketing, and pricing of goods. Ultimately, it finds that the ascendency of “quantitative objectivity” in modern arts education, technoscience, public policy, and property law—especially the turn to economic analysis to determine social worth (and perhaps more importantly, worthlessness) in intellectual property doctrine—not only transformed color, property, and the human imagination as objects of meaning, value, morals, and interests; it allowed them to join together in novel ways.
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