Blue Ivy Carter is only a month old, but she already has a chart-topping single (her coos and crying are featured on the Jay-Z single Glory, released shortly after her birth), and will soon have a trademarked name to go with it. Earlier today, it was announced that Jay-Z and Beyonce, Blue Ivy’s famous parents, have filed an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office. This application, which is likely to be accepted given the precedent for allowing parents to trademark their child’s name, is likely to be approved.
The effect of trademarking Blue Ivy’s name is two-fold. First, it will prevent other people from marketing products under the name “Blue Ivy,” thereby exploiting the possibility that consumers might perceive the product as endorsed by Jay-Z or Beyonce. This seems imminently reasonable, especially given that two applications for trademark of names that included the phrase “Blue Ivy” were filed within a week of this child being born. Apparently, there is very little that some people will not do to make a buck, including exploiting the name of a famous child.
The other effect of trademarking Blue Ivy’s name, however, is potentially more troubling. Trademarking the name, as family law attorney Vikki Ziegler put it, will prevent “third parties from attempting to sell the baby’s name back to the couple.” One way of thinking about this, again, seems imminently reasonable. If a company were to market products under the name “Blue Ivy,” or simply threaten to do so, Jay-Z and Beyonce might be compelled to pay exorbitant amounts of money to prevent such a marketing strategy. Again, the idea would be to prevent exploitation of their child’s name for profit.
But there is an insidious alternative to consider too. It might be that Jay-Z and Beyonce want to trademark their child’s name because they intend to market products under her name. It is not that they do not want “Blue Ivy” to be a marketing tool, but that they want the name to be their marketing tool.
This case raises a number of interesting questions about parental rights. Let’s start with what we know. First, it seems obvious that anyone who is not a child’s parents should not be allowed to use that child’s name for profit, or obtain trademark rights over the name of that child. In addition, while it is rather annoying when celebrities market products under their name, it is something that they are morally permitted to do. Free, uncoerced agents are generally permitted to exploit themselves in this way if they wish. And finally, we tend to think that parents have the right to make decisions about what’s best for their child.
The question, then, is whether this trio of claims implies the permissibility of parents using their child’s name as a marketing tool, as Jay-Z and Beyonce have the opportunity to do with Blue Ivy.
Here’s one reason to think that parental rights do not extend to using a child’s name for marketing purposes. First, we should think about what gives parents the right to make decisions for their children. Young children are not autonomous agents, and so are incapable of making free and informed choices in the way adults are (setting aside any metaphysical worries about freedom). One thought about the source of parental authority, from Gerald Dworkin, is that when parents make decisions for their children, they are essentially wagering that their children will eventually agree with the choices made on their behalf. The standard, then, for evaluating the permissibility of parental choices that affect their children is whether it seems likely that the child will agree with that choice in the future.
Let’s consider an example to clarify what Dworkin is proposing. My son is 2 1/2, and he absolutely hates brushing his teeth. Occasionally, I find myself using bribery, coercive threats, and even physical compulsion to ensure that his teeth get brushed regularly. I would obviously prefer that he cooperate with the process, but sometimes this isn’t possible. On Dworkin’s view, I am betting that despite his protests now, my son will eventually agree that my forcing him to brush his teeth was a good thing. Given that most people prefer to have clean, healthy-looking teeth when they are adults, there is some reason to think that my son will eventually agree with what I am presently doing to him.
Now let’s apply this methodology to the case of a Blue Ivy line of products. At this point, do we have any reason to think Blue Ivy, or any one-month-old child for that matter, would come to agree with the decision to market products under her name? Unlike having clean and healthy teeth, there is likely to be a great deal of individualized variability in people’s preferences for being the subject of a marketing campaign while they are still a child. At this point, we have no way of knowing what Blue Ivy will agree to in the future.
It is truly disgusting that Jay-Z and Beyonce must trademark their child’s name in order to prevent other people from either using it to their own advantage, or blackmailing them to prevent this from happening. However, if Jay-Z and Beyonce are doing this to protect their own proprietary interests, with the hope of developing their own line of Blue Ivy products, their parental rights do not obviously render such an action morally permissible. As Blue Ivy gets older, perhaps there will be a basis for determining whether she will consent, in the future, to having her name used as a marketing tool while she is still a child. But until such evidence presents itself, Jay-Z and Beyonce’s parental duties to promote the well-being of Blue Ivy strongly outweigh any reason they may have for seeking to profit from the trademarking of her name.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.