Copyrighting Corpses

When I was researching my book of stories about copyright and trademark absurdities, I kept turning up stories that I thought could never be topped: the tattoo artist who secured a registered service mark on a full-body tattoo of angel wings (the ® is between the feathers on the person’s right buttock). The biologists who created electronic music based on sequences of DNA molecules from slime molds and sea urchins (who are the “authors” of these “original” tunes – the scientists or the slime molds?). The yoga entrepreneur Bikram Choudhury, who claimed a copyright in the “original” sequence of yoga positions used by his national franchise of yoga studios (the case was settled in May 2005). How could these stories be topped?

I am astonished to report that the assertion of intellectual property rights has reached a pathological new extreme. There is now a lawsuit claiming ownership in the poses of dead bodies. This comes from an article by Bill Buryea in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times (August 15, 2005), and passed along to me by Electronic Frontier Foundation’s indefatigable Fred von Lohmann. (Thanks, Fred!),

Unbeknownst to most of us in the United States, there is a growing international craze of exhibiting cadavers, some of them partially dissected. It all sounds like a ghoulish freak show, in the P.T. Barnum tradition, though some exhibits affect a high-minded artistic or educational pose. The craze got its start when Gunther von Hagens, a German businessman, open an exhibit of dead bodies in Japan in 1995. More than 17 million people came to see “ Body Worlds,” yielding some $200 million in box office and merchandising revenues.

Realizing that there is serious money to be made, there are now at least 10 different touring exhibits of corpses, most of them outside of the U.S. They have names like “The Universe Within,” “Body Exploration” and “Mysteries of the Human Body.” It was perhaps only a matter of time before one of the exhibitors accused the other for filching its intellectual property.

Yes, corpses have apparently become mediums of creative expression deserving of copyright protection. One touring exhibit owned by Premier Exhibitions complained in an Ohio state court that a competing exhibit run by von Hagens’ Plastination Inc., was spreading defamatory rumors about how Premier had acquired its bodies (i.e., that the dead people or their families had not consented to their public display). Premier replied that the bodies were unclaimed bodies from China, and that documentation was impossible to acquire.

But Plastination upped the ante with the trump card played by so many large corporations: intellectual property law. In a counter-lawsuit, Plastination charged that Premier’s “Bodies Revealed” exhibit, when it was in Blackpool, England, had infringed Plastination’s copyrights. How? By displaying corpses in identical poses to its “Body Worlds” exhibit!

Copyright protection is often cited as a vital reward for inducing new creativity. In this case, presumably, property rights are a necessary incentive for the artful presentation of dissected dead bodies – and the economic benefits thereof.

Here’s what the attorney for Gunther von Hagen, John Eastwood of Taipei, told the St. Petersburg Times: “The copyright issue at stake is not the material used for the display but what the rights holder has done with that material to create something new. A music composer has copyright protection for his music, not for the individual notes; a photographers has a copyright for the image, not the photographic paper. It’s not a dead body that’s being copyrighted, it is the work that is made from it.”

I’m glad he cleared that up! Dead bodies as an artistic medium. Of course! By this reckoning, any original “sequence” or modification of anything ought to qualify for copyright protection. I keep wondering when the edifice of intellectual property law will collapse under the weight of its facile absurdities and extensions. Clearly not until a more humane theory of valuation arises to challenge it.