Intellectual Property: Owning What's Yours

You may be the next Basquiat or Ellington or Esperanza. Protect your art -- hire a lawyer. Here's why.

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Adrien Brody in "Cadillac Records"

What would you do if you were the next Jean-Michel Basquiat, selling your original art -- silk-screened T-shirts -- out of the trunk of your car? What if your child created a software program for fun that could be worth billions of dollars? What if you were a musician whose latest release played in clubs all over your city?

In all three instances, the right answer would be: Seek out the advice of a lawyer to protect your intellectual property. But for most creators, the work comes first. Money will follow -- right?

Wrong.

All too often, when it comes to intellectual property, black artists are the ones who lose the rights to their work. 

"It's not hard to get our community excited about music, art or fashion -- we need to get out there in the communities to protect that work," said Lateef Mtima, founder and director of the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice at the Howard University School of Law. He stood behind a podium making his best sales pitch to the assembled Capitol Hill crowd: Protecting intellectual property is essential for today's artists -- and entrepreneurs.  

Mtima is partnering with the NAACP and Google to take intellectual property discussions out of legal journals, courtrooms and academia and to bring them to artists, scientists, technologists and creators of all stripes. He hopes to get more people, particularly young black entrepreneurs, interested in protecting themselves, and their work.

Unfortunately, this may be an uphill battle.

Intellectual property is essentially intangible creations. Defined by the World Intellectual Property Organization, "Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce." All of this law sounds like long, dry, boring legalese -- that is, until we start dredging up the ghosts of black music past. Case in point: an iconic 1954 Time magazine cover portraying the face of jazz -- Dave Brubeck, not Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis or Duke Ellington.

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Mtima pointed to the Time cover as an example of how an art form that was pioneered by African Americans -- our intellectual property -- gets completely and thoroughly co-opted. This type of situation comes with a dual cost: Historically, white artists would cover the music of black artists and receive more accolades, higher rates for touring and more opportunities. The same black artists would die in debt and obscurity.

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