Who Owns Culture?

The question of who owns culture is a big one, especially when products associated with certain cultures or nations turn out to be very popular in the marketplace. Take espresso. In a famous scene from The Sopranos, Paulie Walnuts rants inside a Starbucks-like café as he watches the cash register ring with espresso orders: 

Paulie: The fuckin’ Italian people. How did we miss out on this? 

Pussy: What?

Paulie: Fuckin’ espresso, cappuccino. We invented this shit and all these other cocksuckers are getting’ rich off it. 

Pussy: Yeah, isn’t it amazing? 

Paulie: And it’s not just the money. It’s a pride thing. All our food: pizza, calzone, buffalo mozzarell’, olive oil. These fucks had nothing. They ate pootsie before we gave them the gift of our cuisine. But this, this is the worst. This espresso shit.

Pussy: Take it easy.  

(Photo: ljlandre)

Pussy had a point; it was too late. But could Italians have maintained at least some control (and profit) if the nation had trademarked the word “Italian” and sued anyone who tried to sell Italian espresso?   In a nutshell, that is the question at the heart of a recent dispute between the national retailer Urban Outfitters and the Navajo Nation, a federally recognized Indian tribe. Navajo-style clothing and prints are hot on the runways these days. Urban Outfitters had followed (or led) suit, offering up such items as a Navajo flask and Navajo “hipster panty.” The Navajo, who control dozens of trademarks in the word Navajo, responded with a lawsuit in federal court.  

The interesting question for Freakonomics readers is what economic purpose is served by giving a nation or a people control over the use of their name in commerce. At one level, it seems like simple justice: the Navajo should control what is called Navajo, and for many people that principle is especially compelling for a tribe that has suffered greatly in its history. But as the Sopranos episode highlights, it may not be that simple. If Italy — or Italian-Americans like us — could sue Starbucks (not to mention California Pizza Kitchen), would the world be a better place? It would certainly be a very different market if Italy, France, and China could all control how the words “Italian”, “French”, and “Chinese” were used by restaurants and cafes around the US.  

The trademark law the Navajo invoke in their suit rests on the notion that marks serve as information shortcuts. Trademarks designate the source of goods so consumers can make informed choices in the marketplace. But words don’t always tell consumers who made a good, or who sponsored it.  Often, words are used simply to describe a good – to tell us what it’s like, what it does, what it contains — and the ability to do this effectively can be central to a free market’s functioning: it helps put buyers and sellers together. The Navajo-Urban Outfitters dispute, if it goes to court, will turn on what the consumers who bought the Navajo panties thought they were buying.  Did they think the Navajo people had made or endorsed the Navajo panty? Or did they think it was an ironic offering that used “Navajo” simply to describe the design motif or style?  

There is more to the case, of course, including a federal statute governing “Indian arts and crafts.” But the core issue is a very important one in an increasingly global economy. Many people in many places are aware of the styles associated with peoples in other places, and they often want to wear those styles. The current Navajo craze, whatever its origins, reflects that desire.  Firms like Urban Outfitters are generally free to sell Navajo-style clothing and even to use the word Navajo, as long as they use it to describe what the clothes look like, rather than who made them.  As the Supreme Court made clear in the recent case, that is so even if some consumers are confused and mistakenly think that the Navajo people are responsible for Urban Outfitters’ Navajo panties.

The Navajo may have a strong ethical claim to some uses of the word Navajo – and by no means are we endorsing Urban Outfitters’ actions. But this being Freakonomics, ethics are not our focus. As a legal and economic matter, the Navajo are really no different than the Italians. Whatever trademark rights they possess will be trumped by market competition if it can be shown—as Urban Outfitters will surely try to do—that buyers of, say, the Navajo panty understood “Navajo” as designating a style, and not as a statement of origin. 


This reminds me of champagne, specifically how you're not supposed to call it champagne unless it's actually from Champagne, France.


The EU has a Protected Geographical Status that it gives to foods connected with a specific region. Legally you can't sell sparkling wine as Champagne in the EU unless it comes from that region, to much grumbling from the British (we like to pretend we invented it).

Anders L

Funnily enough, champagne producers plans to buy vineyards in southern England - will they still call it champagne?



...and I will now be deleting the Freakonomics blog from the list of feeds to which I subscribe. I do not appreciate being exposed to the vulgar and offensive language quoted in the outset of this post. Its obscene and uncalled for in this setting. You're better than that. Or at least I thought you were.


Take it easy


Oh Martin. I promise you and your tender little sensibilities will not be missed. Urban Outfitters are cultural appropriators and are deservedly facing the ire of trans activists. Look into their awful "Jack and Jill" card.


So why should a group, especially national/ethnic ones in which membership is not a choice, be entitled to the benefits of the inventions of its members? You might have a case that the inventors of espresso has a right to benefit from the invention (and they did, through patents), but the rest of the Italians?

Then we also have to remember that a lot of those "Italian" foods were in their turn borrowed from other cultures. Something similar to pizza has apparently been around, in one form or another, since neolithic times. Olive oil is mentioned in Homer, and was cultivated in Greece as long ago as 1500 BC.

Eric M. Jones.

...And spaghetti came from China.

Oddly enough, fortune cookies are Japanese, not Chinese. The transition seems to have taken place (?) in WWII California. One wonders how sushi remains so thoroughly Japanese. Yes, some other ethnicities have it, but it really ain't sushi.


Spaghetti did not come from China. Several centuries before Marco Polo pasta had entered Europe from the Arab world, probably via Sicily.
Sushi refers to rice with vinegar. What we call sushi is merely one of the preparations of this where the rice is wrapped in seaweed with some other filling.


Count me not as shocked or saddened, or even offended, by the language quoted from one of my favorite TV shows ever, but count me as surprised that several of those words would ever publicly escape the Gray Lady's lips. Expect to see Stephen Colbert swoon on the air over them.

a very freaky girl

Not Gray Lady anymore.


Italy actually does have their own protections. Certain things are designated DOC (not sure what the acronym translates as) and authenticates their, well, authenticity. To carry a DOC label, you must meet certain standards and be certified. I don't know what legal standing such a label holds in America, as the certification is issued from Italy, but this is far from unprecedented.


I think the economical system rewards the better use of the resources rather than the original invention or the original discovery. For example the chocolate was a harvest from Mexico and central America, but now it's common knowledge that the better chocolate are made in Swiss, there's no cacao plantation in Europe all the swiss made chocolate are growth in Africa or Asia, mostly because is cheaper. But, the swiss made possible the industrialization of the plant creating the machines that extract an condense chocolate.

The same happen with coffe, there's no Italian coffe or french coffe, the coffe plant doesn't growth in cold places, is always in tropical or semi tropical with sun and humidity, but the Frenchs invented a way to toasted different than the Italian, and the Itlalians decided to extract the coffe with a steam machine (when the steam machines were in fashion) so the expresso was invented. But they din't invent the use of coffe neither the process, they only invented a better way to drink it.

An other example is the English tea, we see this as the epitome of what we call culture and refinement in western culture, but actually is a cultural appropriation by the English in his colonial period, that was common in all the courts in Asia way before the England was even a place called England.

Is a complicated issue



I know it is impossible to get into the full complexity of these issues in a blog post, but this sentence really stinks of white privilege:

"The Navajo may have a strong ethical claim to some uses of the word Navajo – and by no means are we endorsing Urban Outfitters’ actions. But this being Freakonomics, ethics are not our focus."

The comparison with Italians rings false when you consider the genocide and continued repression of the United States' indigenous populations. It is nice, but incredibly naive to think that we live in a world where we can bracket out issues and think purely in abstract terms of law and economics. Navajo experience with our imperial laws amount to broken treaties and forced relocation.

By framing this debate over "navajo hipster panties" as a mere economic debate over "statements of origin" and making a glib comparison with an entirely different cultural group and experience, we are not only ignoring, but commidifying this group's history and culture. Was wiping Native Americans off the map not enough?


Renee A.D

Beautifully said.


As other commenters have noted, this phenomenom is not limited to underserved minorities and in fact going forward, we can expect that any regional specialty with a slightly positive reputation will be protected. Almost all nations have an appellation protection for vintage wines in particular, and other items such as Neapolitan pizza (including the US) and of course, reciprocal agreements to honor other nation's appellations. The key seems to be the standards that apply. So for the Navajos to validly claim a Navajo appellation, they should codify what actions, ingredients, or designs make a truly Navajo garment. Then we know when we get genuine Navajo apparel, it meets these standards. No standards, no appellation.


The word 'Navajo' is the Spanish corruption of 'navahu’u' which is a shortened form of what the early European explorers called the natives of that part of the southwest 'Apaches de Nabajó'. So it's kind of like you claiming title to the nickname someone else gave you. The people we call Navajo call themselves Diné, which just means people.