Say what you like about me. I'll patent it

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The Independent Online
The retiring Eric Cantona, football's kung fu philosopher, is applying for a couple of copyrights, the proceeds from which will help see him through his old age. The first of these is for the words Ooh-ah! Cantona! - a slogan invented and chanted by faithful fans at Old Trafford. The second is the number 7 with his name on top - as emblazoned on the back of the Manchester United shirt that he wore with so much success.

Eric has a point here. There are thousands of rough-looking men with hairy necks making a packet out of selling Cantona shirts and Ooh-ah! memorabilia. In the latter case, it can only be a matter of time before the words fall into the hands of pornographers and are used to sell unpleasant products. And all this happens - or is yet to happen - without the star earning a sou from it himself. You can hardly blame him for wanting to cash in on his own act.

Ah, I hear you object (though not ooh-ah, I think), but isn't it a bit odd claiming a copyright on words and things that you have not invented or created yourself? Why has Eric not taken out a copyright on, say, "When the seagerls follow zee trawler, zey do eet because zey zink zat sardines will be thrown into ze sea"? This is undeniably his own work, and neither the seagull nor the sardines are likely to contest his right to the words.

Well, that's not exactly watertight either, is it? Consider the phrases that people might be said to have made their own either by invention or constant repetition. Remaining in the world of football for just a moment, Arsenal striker Ian Wright, who has this week booked in on an "anger management" course, would face stiff competition from fellow pros for Millerisms such as "F*** off, ref - you short-sighted little c***!"

Nobody other than the estate of the late Larry Grayson would be able to print the words "shut that door!" without paying a hefty commission. Whoever got "the cheque is in the post" would pretty soon never have to use the phrase again. What about the man or woman who successfully manages to corner the market in "make mine a half"? Within months, this person would rival the inventor of cat's eyes by earning unbelievably huge sums from millions of teeny copyright payments.

So there are problems even where authorship is the issue. Where it is not, the case becomes even more interesting. If it is possible to copyright what others say or write about you, a whole new world (my apologies to Disney; the cheque is in the post) of rights opens up.

Let us allow straightaway for a time limitation on such actions. It would seem unfair for the Porsenna family of Volterra to be able to sue the Macaulay ancestors for 150 years of "Lars Porsenna of Clusium, by the nine Gods he swore".

The six wives of Henry VIII would never be out of court, and if there had been such a man as the Ancient Mariner, dozens of 20th century descendants could now be expecting a big payout; friends and acquaintances would never hear the last of it. Fights would break out over who Don Giovanni was, and DNA tests taken to establish whether Eroica was the name of Beethoven's secret mistress.

This cannot be an argument against taking action, however. Is it fair to Peter Mandelson that others should be able to cash in on "New Labour's Macchiavelli" and he doesn't get a sausage? Or to the Prime Minister that T-shirts are already on sale bearing the number 10 and the legend, "Call Me Tony"? Surely every time the image of John Major wearing his underpants outside his trousers appears, Mr Major (who, after all, bought the underpants in the first place) should get something.

Yes, there are dangers. There will be what the Americans call "class actions", with large numbers of claimants going after the same rights. Bald men will band together over "slapheads", plump ones over "fatty", and large-bosomed women over "cor, look at the knockers on that!" And if one of the consequences were that these newly expensive phrases got trotted out less often, would that really be so bad?

But let me come clean - I can also see some pecuniary advantage for myself in all this. My own avaricious eyes are set on "what on earth is funny about that?" and "if I looked like him, I'd ask not to have a photo at the top of my column". And just this week I sensed that I could have earned a few quid had I nipped down to the copyright office and registered "thank God Miles Kington is back on Monday!" Which, of course, he is.