A View from Henry Jenkins

U.S. Postal Service Discovers Customization

For more than a decade, customization has been a major buzz word in the consumer products world with companies allowing us to select our own personalized scent or design our own teas and coffees. This week, customization comes to the…

  • August 11, 2004

For more than a decade, customization has been a major buzz word in the consumer products world with companies allowing us to select our own personalized scent or design our own teas and coffees. This week, customization comes to the world of stamps. Photo.stamps.com has made an arrangement with the U.S. Postal Service to allow people to design their own stamps on computer and have them printed out by the Santa Monica, California based company. A sheet of 20 self-adhesive 37-center stamps costs $16.99, more than twice what it would cost to buy the ones with the American flags on them down at your local post awful.

The Post Office has waived its long standing restrictions on depicting people who have not be dead for 10 years or longer so you can make stamps of your friends and loved ones while they can still appreciate the sentiment. The company sets limits on nudity, abusive, and copyrighted material, meaning that it would be hard to use the stamps to recognize famous people who reflect our own perspectives or interests. Of course, the enforcement of these rules are only going to be as good as the poor smuck who has to set there at the plant and monitor what people are printing out. That means you probably won’t get away with a Arnold Swartzenegger stamp but may well be able to honor lesser known actors from obscure television shows. News reports say that during the first week pictures of babies, pets, and family groups were most popular.

USA Today, where I first read about this story, presumes that there will be little collector interest from these stamps since anyone can print them at any time, but one can imagine that if public figures printed their own stamps, there would be healthy interest in collecting this limited good, whether or not resale of the stamps is above or below ground.

So far, the focus is on photographs. It is not clear from the site whether parents can, say, print up a stamp to show off their children’s artwork. Nothing on the site prohibits it, as far as I can see, but none of the news reports mention what I would see as one of the most likely uses of this program.

Here’s an interesting case to consider: suppose that I print out stamps of my family snapshots at Disneyworld. Can I be sued by Disney? Don’t laugh, given a number of recent cases involving attempts to print unauthorized postcards of public buildings. Who owns the likenesses of places remains a heated public debate, so even your family snaps may not be fully owned by you.

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