In January 2010 someone at the National Football League said, “Holy shit! People are paying attention to the Saints!” and proceeded to send cease and desist letters to businesses selling merchandise with the phrase “Who Dat?” on it. The NFL eventually backed off under massive public pressure. Of course the fact that someone else had the phrase trademarked before the NFL claimed exclusive rights helped push them to back off.
At the time I was most struck by the absurdity of anyone claiming to own two words that are so much a part of the culture. It’s ludicrous. And I knew that trademark would eventually come back around to bite us in the ass again. Now Sal and Steve Monistere and their company, in an effort to assert their right to the phrase, are suing local businesses who are selling Who Dat merchandise. Once again there’s going to be an outcry against this, but it’s going to be much more difficult to stop the Monistere’s.
The problem here isn’t greed, it’s intellectual property itself. Somewhere along the way people decided they could own ideas. Anything that had been part of culture could now be privately held. Where once poems could inspire books which could inspire operas that would inspire other operas, now licensing stood in the way.
For nearly all of human history our stories, our songs, our poetry, our language was held in common. Stories would evolve as they were retold, adapting to fit different circumstances. Poems would be recited by anyone who knew them. Songs were sung by anyone with the ability. Now all of that has been taken away. To sing a song publicly, you have to pay a fee. To share a poem, you have to get permission from its owner. To retell a story, you have to pay for the license to do so.
And apparently to print a chant widely used by the population of south Louisiana, you have to pay Sal and Steve Monistere.
I say, along with most folks in this area, that “Who Dat” belongs to everyone. I’m not just saying that because the chant predates the trademark claim. I’m not just saying that because the phrase has grown beyond its use by the Monistere’s and thus transcends their right to ownership.
“Who Dat” belongs to everyone in the same way that Cinderella, Rent, “Howl,” “Stairway to Heaven” and the letter B belong to everyone. Art and language are not private property, but cultural property. No one person can claim any of it. Stories, songs, poems and chants grow out of their cultures and belong to everyone.
Who dat say dey own “Who Dat?” Me. And you. And everyone.