Bruce Sterling on 18 Feb 2001 17:51:09 -0000

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Subject: Oprah Enters Public Domain, Fans Mourn
Date: Sun, Feb 18, 2001, 12:28 AM

October 8, 2075

Oprah Enters Public Domain, Fans Mourn

CHICAGO--In a blow to billions of hopeful fans worldwide, the U. S. Supreme
Court ruled on Thursday that Oprah Winfrey has entered the public domain
and is no longer entitled to continued existence as a protected trademark.
The decision is the most recent development in Oprah's decades-long legal
struggle to maintain the corporation's privity with its founder.  "We're
down, but not out," declared Oprah lead counsel David Boies shortly after
the decision was announced.  "We'll continue to push for appropriate
Congressional action on the issue, and we have papers under consideration
at WIPO.  This is not over."

 Though speculation remains concerning the broader implications of the
Court's ruling in the case, legal experts agree that the decision has
killed Oprah.  Harvard Law Professor Yasmine Yarble explains:  "The
fundamental problem is that corporations typically have perpetual
existence, while people do not.  Oprah the legal entity has outlived Oprah
the physical entity.  The managers and shareholders have an understandable
interest in maintaining that Oprah is still legally alive.  That's what
this case is about.  That's what these past twelve years of litigation have
been about."

 Over a dozen or so years, and in over twenty litigations, Oprah has sought
to maintain that its continued corporate existence perpetuates that of its
founder.  Until a binding arbitration resolved the matter last year against
it, the company had maintained that the stipulation in Oprah's bylaws that
"each security, note, and debenture certificate issued by the Company" be
embossed with "a security and authentication stamp" including a
freeze-dried "cell of the Founder" was sufficient to establish privity
between the company and the star, and to entitle the company to "the
continued enjoyment of the legal rights and privileges" of the beloved

 The company continues to argue that the widespread adoption of the "O
Chromosome"--a genome supplement encapsulating each of Oprah's SNiPs and
distributed through lickable add-in cards in birthday issues Oprah's
popular magazine properties--constitutes a de facto perpetual "life" for
Oprah as part of the genome of her fans and their descendants.

 Recently the company had pinned its hopes on the theory that her
continuing value as a brand was sufficient to establish "life" for legal
purposes, and had won a sympathetic hearing in Illinois probate courts and,
on appeal, in the Illinois Supreme Court.  The latest U. S. Supreme Court
ruling, however, undermined that theory by refusing to recognize the
company's proprietary interests in her name, likeness, and associated
trademarks.  In a per curiam opinion, the Court announced that "'oprah'
has, despite the apparent best efforts of appellant, become an ubiquitous
and generic part of the language and has hence been constructively
abandoned to public use."

 The consequences of the ruling for the company are many.  Not only will
the corporation lose its most important entertainment property, but it is
also likely to face heady estate taxes as it struggles to recharacterize
itself as a trustee of Oprah's estate.   The company will also face complex
and contested probate proceedings, including a number of unconsolidated
class-action claims by bearers of the "O Chromosome" that their genetic
relation to the star entitles them to a slice of the estate.

 The company, further, must "write down" the portion of its assets
attributable to the Oprah brand, a move sure to decimate the company's
market capitalization.  "Most of these celebrity corporations carry a huge
amount of goodwill on the books," explains Jupiter Analyst Amanda Freeh.
"That goodwill represents the value of celebrity.  It's typically the
firm's chief asset.  If you lose it, the market will come after you with a

 Reaction outside the financial community was more positive, with votes of
support and sympathy pouring into Oprah's Chicago headquarters.  Speaking
at a candlelight vigil outside the headquarters, Geraldine Creak, Oprah CEO
and author of 'Awaken the Corporation Within,' remembered Oprah fondly, and
called for fans to "Buy and Hold the Oprah within" and to continue to
pursue an "IPO of the Spirit."


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