Who owns my name?

For the sake of today’s discussion, we will pretend that my name is John Doe, and we’ll call my bride Jane Doe.

About two years ago, we received in our mail a plea for donations from a group involved in research and treatment of a disease. Let’s call it Skeeterbitis. Someone working for the Skeeterbitis people had managed to turn my name around and addressed the letter to Mr. Doe John. We chuckled as we tossed the letter, along with the several other daily pleas for donations, into the recycling bin.

A few days later, we received another letter, this time address to Ms. Jane John. The letter began, “Dear Ms. John.” For nearly two years, our daily plea-for-money mail included something addressed to one of us as Mr. or Ms. John, but always from this same Skeeterbitis source. Even sheets of useless return address labels bearing our fouled-up name. As soon as we saw the backwards name, we instantly knew its source.

Then a few weeks ago, the backwards name malady showed signs of spreading. Now we receive mail from other causes, no doubt equally worthy, all addressed to the backwards name. Obviously, the Skeeterbitis folks have sold our name and address to others.

This isn’t surprising. Name and address lists of potential donors or customers are sold and bought all the time. But it raises these important questions: Who actually owns my name and address? What is this personal information worth, that is, what is its cash value to someone else, such as the Skeeterbitis group in this case? Why does someone else have the right to profit from the sale of my name and address?

Let’s say that the Skeeterbitis people sold their name and address list of potential donors to the Freckle Abatement Project people for $200. If the list contains exactly 200 names and addresses, I would argue that each name and address has a cash value of $2.00. Including mine. The Skeeterbitis folks pocket $200, but where is my cut? My name and address brought them income.

Shouldn’t I be entitled to at least a portion of that? Who, after all, is the rightful, legal owner of my name and address? I never sold it to Skeeterbitis, and I certainly didn’t give it away.

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