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A story on the radio show Marketplace yesterday inadvertently highlighted an important point that is all too often left out of discussions about intellectual property: some types of ideas are simply beyond the scope of copyright or patent. Even commercial ideas. And that is ok.
The story was about the trend of weaving rooster feathers into hairstyles (if you are having trouble visualizing this, take a look here). The piece started with an interview with Gabrielle Aquaro, a hair stylist from Southern California. She mentioned seeing some feathers in an unnamed girl’s hair, and then borrowing rooster feathers from her father’s fly fishing gear to start weaving them into clients’ hair.
The story goes on to explain that the trend is expanding, how other stylists are doing it, and even celebrities like Steven Tyler are being seen with feathers in their hair. In fact (and this is the real point of the story), this trend is becoming so popular that it is creating a run on rooster feathers in the fly fishing world.
You may be shocked to hear what was not included in the story. Ms. Aquaro is not licensing the idea of weaving rooster feathers purchased from fly fishing supply stores into hair to other stylists. The unnamed girl who inspired Ms. Aquaro is not suing Steven Tyler for creating a derivative work of her original idea. Whiting Farms, which supplies many of the top decorative rooster feathers, is not being shut down for contributory infringement. Perhaps most disturbing, no one in the story seems concerned over who owns this idea at all.
And yet strangely, commerce continues. Gabrielle Aquaro (and untold numbers of others) continues to make money weaving feathers into her clients’ hair. Tom Whiting continues to make money selling feathers to hair stylists. Steven Tyler keeps making money doing whatever it is that he does these days.
While intellectual property protections like copyright and patent are important and necessary, they are not a prerequisite for an economically viable industry. That is true in the hair styling industry. It is also true in the fashion industry, and the cooking industry, and even the board game design industry. Innovation can (and does) occur in the absence of copyright. It happens every day.
Intellectual property rights help to sustain some types of economic models and innovative creativity. However, they can also stifle other types of economic models and innovative creativity. Rooster feathers in hair are just another reminder that people can come up with new trends (and profit from them) without the promise of decades of licensing fees.