LET'S DO AS OUR CELEBRITIES DO: CONTROL OUR 'COMMERCIAL DNA'

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I used to believe the one thing that would forever remain safe from marketing was my soul. Now I'm not so sure.Two forthcoming books make hay, if not literature, out of the spirit voices of dead rock stars. Both seem to show that, when it comes to the sales impulse, nothing's sacred -- certainly not your immortal selfness.

In "In the Spirit," Wendy Weir, the sister of former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, re-prints her conversations with the spirit of the band's leader, Jerry Garcia. The Harmony Books publication, scheduled for July, will be matched by a Hampton Roads publication, "Across the Universe With John Lennon," in which author Linda Keen retells -- or is it retails? -- her discussions with the ex-ex-Beatle.

Now I'm all for talking with the deceased. There are a few things I'd like to ask Lennon myself. (I'm still mystified by the flip side of "Let It Be.") So far be it for me to criticize these authors. Besides, my interest in these books was piqued less by their cultural import than by a question my wife asked when reading about them: "Can they do that?"

The answer's not as simple as it seems. The First Amendment protects an awful lot of speech. But in recent years, courts and legislatures have eroded a fair amount of that protection in deference to commercial interests. In particular, celebrities' reputations are now deemed to be, in no small way, their property, for them or their estates to dispose of as they see fit, in life and on into death.

The effect of this has ranged from the sublime to the scary. On the exploitation front, Ernest Hemingway's heirs have leased Papa's name and image for a line of home furnishings. But Martin Luther King's family has gone the other way, restricting free access to the great civil rights leader's speeches, the better for the estate to profit from them.

There's more than a bit of schizophrenia here. While we live in a culture that's less and less private (think "Starr Report"), more and more items that once seemed part of the public sphere are being declared personal or commercial property. The branding mania -- which carries as its subtext the belief a personal or corporate reputation is the only thing of value to which one can lay proprietary claim -- is promising to extend this restrictive right even further.

Vladimir Nabokov's literary executors managed to hinder the U.S. publication of a fanciful Italian novel that purports to tell the story of Lolita from the nymphet's viewpoint. The New York Times, bastion of free speech, recently acted against Amazon.com for unauthorized use of its best-seller list -- a chart posted with abandon by bookstores around the country. It can't be coincidental that the Times has an exclusive online promotional arrangement with Barnes & Noble.

All of which leads me to believe that books channeling the spirits of dead rock stars may themselves be an imperiled genre. If Jimmy Buffet can make millions today not only from his music but from books, retail stores and the sale of parrot hats, why would his family ever give up the right to profit from his soul in that distant day when the Pirate shuffles off this mortal coil?

It also makes me wonder whether you and I might profit from this trend. We may not seem like celebrities, and our brands may not appear to attract notice beyond our front doors, but we do possess property that's increasingly valuable to the marketing world: our consumption data.

Increasingly, every transaction in which we engage, every medium we peruse and every lifestyle choice we make becomes part of an exploitable database. As data-mining technology grows more sophisticated, the value of this personal information grows. It inverts the branding paradigm, turning each of us into a celebrity, and marketers into the mass market that craves access to us.

Hence my suggestion: a populist movement to declare such data -- call it our commercial DNA -- the property of the individual. Marketers who want to use it (and let's face it, in the era of interactivity, that's all marketers) will have to pay for the privilege of entering our lives, just as you and I have to pay for tickets to a concert.

The impact will be tremendous. For some consumers, privacy will be protected. For others, a vast new source of income will open up. Many will be able to retire and write books.

But not about dead rock stars.

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