Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What to Do with 'Who Dat': the Economics of Language

"I'm glad the NFL finally realized that, even though it's the biggest animal in the jungle, it doesn't have to eat every other animal in the jungle."
--Michael Wilbon, ESPN's PTI

As you wash down the last bit of your cajun gumbo with your third beer of the night, you pump your fist and yell "who dat?" in a blend of syncopated rhythm as off beat yet musical as the language spoken in Louisiana's bayous. But as you celebrate your New Orleans Saints' trip to their first Super Bowl with the 2 word cheer that is part question, part phrase, another question is being formulated in the minds of men thousands of miles away: "can someone own a chant?"

The notion that one can copyright words, phrases, even whole sentences is not very foreign. And, to a certain degree, that makes sense. If a company produces a slogan that generates profits, it is unfair for another company to pirate that slogan for its profits. But how far does branding words for one's own use go?

Today the NFL agreed that they would allow vendors at the Super Bowl to sell products that have the New Orleans Saints' "Who dat?" slogan. How nice of the NFL to do that. My problem with them trying to prevent that at all is that the phrase did not come from NFL marketing execs brainstorming on how to increase profits. Nor did it originate with Saints management. The words came organically from the New Orleans fans.

In essence, groups of people started it, the phrase then gathered momentum, and it is now a marketable tool. And since it is used to market both the NFL and the Saints, I have no problem with either one making money from it. I take offense to the thought that only they should be able to do so. A vendor whose returns on his homemade t-shirts or mugs will be much less than anything the NFL produces should be able to use a phrase that, quite honestly, originated with a group of people who are much more like him both culturally and economically as opposed to the group of lawyers and execs who are much more likely to say "who dat?" in reference to the phrase itself than in reference to the team it was originally meant to support.

So as you celebrate this weekend with your crab legs and crawfish, french fries and fish, remember that winning is important. And making money is good. But the creativity of a community's collective comradery can be better.

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