The 2012 Name of the Year
The Name of the Year captures a moment in name form. Sometimes that moment is funny, sometimes it's moving, sometimes profoundly troubling. This year's nominees ran the gamut. Names like Trayvon, Sandy, Gabby, Grey and Honey Boo Boo speak very different messages about our society in 2012.
But the Name of the Year isn't a person of the year, or a story of the year. It focuses on names: what they mean to us, how they're changing, and how they reflect our preoccupations and our dreams. With all of this in mind, the 2012 Name of the Year is:
Miss Blue Ivy Carter was born on January 7, 2012 to parents with major star power: entertainers Beyoncé and Jay-Z. The name follows the classic recipe for style in every sphere of life, taking currently fashionable themes and ingredients and pushing them just a bit further into new territory.
Blue Ivy was an instant media sensation. An unconventional but catchy name plus two high-wattage celebrity parents made for a major news story. In a sure sign of our national baby-name obsession, the Wall Street Journal even asked me to write an editorial about the name choice. Yet the most compelling part of the Blue Ivy story wasn't the name announcement, but what followed.
A few weeks after Blue Ivy Carter's birth, her parents made new headlines by filing a trademark application for the use of Blue Ivy as a brand name for baby clothes, personal care products and more. Many assumed this was the first step toward turning the baby into a brand, with shelves full of glammed-up bibs and diaper bags for infants with style.
That all may yet come to pass, but it's likely that the motivation behind the legal filing was quite different. A trademark like this can be a protective impulse -- a form of babyproofing by celebrity parents who face both opportunities and risks that most families can't imagine. Take a look at what happened within days of Blue Ivy Carter's birth, before her parents filed their trademark application:
- A New Jersey man applied to trademark the name "Blue Ivy Carter NYC" as a brand name for infants' and childrens' clothing.
- A New York company applied to trademark the name "Blue Ivy Carter Glory IV" as a brand name for fragrances and cosmetics.
Both of those applications were ultimately rejected by the Trademark Office for misleadingly implying endorsement by a celebrity. Blue Ivy's parents could have just counted on the government to keep spotting such attempts, but instead they decided to be proactive and trademark the name themselves, protecting a broad realm of goods and services from potential Blue Ivy wannabes.
Picture yourself as a parent of a newborn, learning that people were literally trying to build businesses off your baby's good name and even claim legal rights to her name. In that position, would you have done differently?
But then the trademark story, as reported in the media, took a new turn. In October, stories in every kind of news outlet -- from CBS News to Forbes, CNN to Rolling Stone -- reported that Beyoncé and Jay-Z's trademark application had been denied; a Boston wedding planner had been granted the rights to the name Blue Ivy instead. The reports typically portrayed a showdown between the parents and the planner, and explained that since Blue Ivy Events existed first, that trademark claim held precedence. So "Beyonce and Jay-Z have no legal rights to the name."
Guess what? According to later and more detailed reports, this simply never happened.
A quick look at the Trademark Office's online database will tell you that the entertainers' application continues to be processed. The origin of the mass mistake is unclear, though it's possible that the media were inspired by the words of the Blue Ivy wedding planner herself. Some of her comments to reporters suggested a battle with the rich and famous, in which she proved that "money doesn't buy everything." (Though in another interview, she also noted that "If Beyoncé and Jay-Z want to buy me out I’d welcome that.")
Regardless of its source, the story never made sense. Why would a trademark for event-planning services under the name Blue Ivy prevent anyone from trademarking the name for use on, say, baby toys? A trademark doesn't give an entity total ownership of a word or phrase. It grants them the exclusive right to use that phrase in a specific realm of business. The name "Blue Ice," for instance, is separately trademarked by various businesses for products ranging from slot machines to anchovy paste. Even Blue Ivy had a preexisting trademark as the name of a retail store. The prospective parents and the wedding planner could both trademark Blue Ivy without conflict.
This lack of understanding of trademarks, and of copyrights and patents and the differences among them, is widespread. That's relevant to this name story because the story is all about the essence of intellectual property rules: invention, identity, exclusivity and control. Consider that none of this trademark brouhaha would have happened if the baby had been named something like Bella Carter instead of Blue.
Beyoncé Knowles' own first name was invented by her parents, and was distinctive enough to allow her to become a one-named star. Jay-Z changed his name from Shawn Carter. These parents clearly understand the power of a name to shape an image, and the power of a unique name to carve out a place in the spotlight. They chose a spotlight-ready name for their daughter, and proceeded to defend her namespace.
Of course, celebrities aren't the only ones choosing unique baby names to establish memorable identities. They're part of a whole generation doing the same. Unusual names are soaring, and the Name Lady's inbox is stuffed with letters from parents whose "unique" baby name was "stolen" by another parent. The Blue Ivy story just ratchets the stakes up to superstar level, with teams of lawyers at the ready and millions of dollars on the line. Perhaps it can serve as a thought laboratory for all of us, as we consider what we're trying to achieve with unique baby names...and how much our children's names really belong to us.
Earlier I said that Blue Ivy's parents "proceeded to defend her namespace." They defended it in the arena of commerce, but they can't defend it in the arena of names. Given names aren't subject to trademark (or copyright, or patent) as names. Every name belongs to all of us, and every new parent is free to use it.
This legal reality of baby names as a commons runs counter to our psychological reality. The more that we parents sweat over names and try to choose something special and distinctive, the more ownership we feel over our choices. To the parents of a little Indigo, another Indigo on the preschool class list can't help but feel like a violation.
In some branches of the creative naming tree, parents aren't just choosing names but crafting them. The question "Should we go with William or James?" is fundamentally different from "Which looks better, McBryleigh or MacBrylie?" It's as if we're moving from a marketplace of mass-produced names to one of handmade artisanal names. Isn't it natural for a mother who dreamed up a name from scratch and refined it letter by letter to feel a sense of ownership of that name? Yet another mom in her same small town has every right to copy that hand-crafted name for her own baby.
Blue Ivy's parents used trademark powers to stop other people from naming clothes or toys after their daughter, but nobody can stop America's parents from naming babies after her. And for most of us, that's the namespace that matters most.
With best wishes for the naming year ahead,