This post written by my research assistant

A person’s online identity is her own creation, a pure expression of her persona and innermost desires. It is quintessentially tied to her personhood.

Except when it isn’t. From the New York Times:

The rapper 50 Cent is among the legion of stars who have recently embraced Twitter to reach fans who crave near-continuous access to their lives and thoughts. On March 1, he shared this insight with the more than 200,000 people who follow him: “My ambition leads me through a tunnel that never ends.”

Those were 50 Cent’s words, but it was not exactly him tweeting. Rather, it was Chris Romero, known as Broadway, the director of the rapper’s Web empire, who typed in those words after reading them in an interview. “He doesn’t actually use Twitter,” Mr. Romero said of 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson III, “but the energy of it is all him.” . . . In many cases, celebrities and their handlers have turned to outside writers — ghost Twitterers, if you will — who keep fans updated on the latest twists and turns, often in the star’s own voice.

How does this affect the way that we should view property interests in online expressions?


There are several potential theoretical grounds for protecting a property interest in online expressions. As Deven has written, online expressions link to both labor theory of property, as well as persona theory. That is, this kind of property is created by the writer’s labor and thus should be designated as property (Lockean labor theory), and it also links to important expressions of personhood (Radin’s personhood/property theory). For both of those reasons (and others), Deven suggests heightened protection for online expression.

And of course, there are potential critiques of those bases. McKenna and Madow, among others, have discussed how a labor theory of property can overstate the property interest of celebrities in their public images, because others (the public) interact with the celebrities to create this property.

But what if it’s not Madow-esque public interaction undercutting the property claim, but rather the celebrity’s own indifference? Both labor and persona grounds for protection seem to diminish in the ghostwriting context.

Labor theory claims may still make sense, since the celebrity could claim that her supervision of the process (presumably the ghostwriters are supervised) creates Lockean labor-property rights. (Maybe the ghostwriters are like research assistants in this context, and labor-theory property rights would still attach?)

But persona protection arguments look less compelling. A ghostwritten tweet seems unlikely to generate the personal property connection for which Peggy Radin advocates heightened protection (for property such as one’s wedding ring).

And of course, there is an unrelated danger in putting too much of one’s personhood into online expression. Apparently, it can lead to relationship problems with Jennifer Aniston. Yes, there is always a Jennifer Aniston connection here at Concurring Opinions.

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5 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    I’m not clear on how the theoretical issues necessarily arise in this case. I’d expect most ghostwriters for celebrities are writing pursuant to an employment relationship, or else under a contract that likely provides for an assignment of copyright to the celebrity (or some enity controlled by the celebrity).

    Why wouldn’t the celeb be standing in the shoes of the creator, in that case? Or are you saying that there ought to be diminished protection, on both labor and persona grounds, in all work-made-for-hire/assignment situations? (BTW, that last question is asked in a curious, not shocked, tone of voice.)

  2. A.W. says:

    Btw, why is everyone all of a sudden fascinated by twitter?

  3. Kaimi says:

    A.J.,

    I’m following up on Deven’s specific argument here. In a small nutshell (but you really should read the whole article), it’s this:

    People are often expressing themselves online, but often in ways that technically don’t give them a property right in the expression. You don’t have a full property right in your Yahoo mail account, or your Twitter stream, or your Facebook account. They are limited (often a lot) by existing 3P contracts. Deven suggests that there are arguments for giving stronger property protections to those expressions. E.g., if Twitter decides to seize my account, I have an argument that it is connected to both my labor and my personhood, and that I should get some property protection.

    In this post, I’m suggesting that those arguments are less compelling in the case of ghostwriters.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for your explantion. So it sounds like you’re talking about a natural rights sort of property, rather than copyright? or at least a natural-rights “penumubra” to copyright?

  5. Kaimi says:

    Deven’s article suggests the need for some level of property protection that is not directly tied to copyright, yes.