Heightened Scrutiny of Your Royal Highness

On Sunday, March 10, tabloids were in quite a frenzy when the British royal family published a photoshopped picture of Catherine, princess of Wales. The hubbub was extra hubbubbly, because this was the first official photo after the princess had abdominal surgery this past January. The order of events caused some people to speculate the edits indicated there was something to hide about the princess’s health status.

Shortly after the public reaction, the princess issued an apology for the edits. Sadly, less than two weeks later, the rumors were confirmed to be true: Princess Catherine did have a health problem. She had been diagnosed with cancer and had commenced preventative chemotherapy. As part of this announcement, Princess Catherine bravely encouraged the public, “For everyone facing this disease in whatever form, please do not lose faith or hope. You are not alone.”

Public Reaction

The controversy about Princess Catherine has led to a larger discussion about what privacy rights the royal family deserves.

One Australian news segment, “The Jury,“ decided—in a vote of 9 to 3—that the royal family does, indeed, have the right to medical privacy. While that “jury” has absolutely zero legal authority over the monarchy, it nonetheless raised important points. One debater on the show argued that tax money paid to the royal family entitles the public to a certain amount of information. The other side argued we should equate tax revenue paid to the royal family with payments to any other government employee.

Despite the monumental difference in salary for a princess and a typical government employee, is it fair to argue she does not have a right to privacy?  On the one hand, if keeping personal information private is a basic human right, one could see it as an absolute right. On the other hand, paying for information is an exchange seen in the business world every day. For corporations, this practice is known as an “intellectual property transaction.” In fact, the payment made to a licensor of intellectual property rights is commonly known as a “royalty,” a term originating from an earlier generation of the same family. So, do British taxes count as ‘royalties’ paid for access to the royal family’s ‘intellectual property?’

Personal Intellectual Property

Importantly, even for licensees of intellectual property (IP), there are restrictions built into the agreement. McDonald’s hamburgers illustrates this principle. McDonald’s has franchised a ‘kingdom’ of 41,822 stores around the world. These global burger citizens pay a ‘royal tax’ in the form of a lease, and in return they have access to McDonald’s branding IP.

Importantly, access to some IP does not grant access to all IP per se. A franchisee may display the famous golden arches in a local ad to sell a “Royale with Cheese.”  However, that franchisee would not be allowed to alter the IP by displaying the golden arches upside down as a “W” (unless they were selling items from the WcDonald’s universe).

Furthermore, there are some types of McDonald’s IP to which a franchisee may have no access at all. For example, at the corporate headquarters there may be private business data (which is also IP) that the owner of a single store would not be allowed to know. Restrictions set on IP access and its use is likely included in the franchise contracts.

For British royalty, we might think of their ‘intellectual property’ as having similar contractual limits. Though British citizens don’t sign a written contract with the monarchy, a social contract does recognize the monarchy’s humanity. An implied term of this contract is that certain intellectual property (like a family photo) is accessible to the public. Other intellectual property (like health information) is accessible only to the ‘headquarters’ of the family.

American Royalty

In the United States of America, we don’t have a royal family. Though America’s relationship with the British royals has mended since its colonial tensions, a ban on receiving noble status remains enshrined in the Constitution. Even so, royals—and questions about the privacy of their health information—are not an entirely foreign concept for Americans.

For example, some would characterize the power couple of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce as “American royalty.“ After a booming year of concerts and a Super Bowl win, it’s easy to see why. The couple isn’t directly funded by American tax dollars, but Americans who spend a collective fortune on concerts and game tickets might have expectations similar to what the British have of their own royalty.

Swifties expressed urgent concerns when Taylor coughed in a concert on March 5. Taylor’s fans adore her, and she receives ample support from them, but that doesn’t mean her medical information is for sale. One can examine the contractual agreement in a ticket purchase to confirm this fact: fans—no matter how dedicated—are not granted access to Taylor’s health data. A personal health disclosure would be left entirely to the discretion of Ms. Swift.

Travis Kelce, however, is subject to a different disclosure standard. Health is central to the sport of American football. Because players’ health statuses are directly intertwined with their job performance, team physicians must have the power to disclose health information to their coaches. For all players, this disclosure policy is included in the NFL Players Assocation’s collective bargaining agreement (Article 39) with the understanding that injuries are publicly reported on a weekly basis.

Comparisons Across the Pond

Unlike the royal family, most entertainment stars are not literally born into the business (But see Mannings, Cyruses). In contrast, being royal is an inherited trait, and choosing to leave is tough. This aspect of choice should matter.

Athletes arguably do choose to publicly license the intellectual property of their health. Yet, this information is limited to health issues potentially affecting gameplay, not all medical conditions. Surely this protection is greater for musicians and princesses.

Fame need not be a universal release of all expectations of health privacy. Let’s worry less about celebrity sickness and more about getting down to this sick beat.


The post Protecting Health Privacy is a Royal Pain first appeared on Bill of Health.