When Kim Dotcom was arrested over the weekend for operating the illegal file-sharing site Megaupload, he was found in a fortified safe room of his New Zealand mansion protected by his gun collection. As authorities continued the raid on his property, they seized millions of dollars worth of personal property, including a collection of 18 luxury automobiles. In a detail that has delighted followers of the Dotcom story, each car featured a personalized license plate, each inscribed with a single bold word: "EVIL," "GOOD," "GOD," "STONED," "CEO," "MAFIA," "HACKER," "GUILTY."
The vanity plates fit in perfectly with Dotcom’s image as a wealthy mastermind villain. That association has been forged through decades worth of films in which custom plates often mean the bad guy is rolling in. Most notably, Auric Goldfinger, the infamous antagonist in the 1964 James Bond film, rolled in a 1937 yellow Rolls Royce complete with custom plates reading “AU 1,” a reference to the abbreviation for gold on the Periodic Table of Elements. And when Chris Evans's character steals a lawyer's car in the film Cellular, the plates read, “WL SU YOU 2.” Although they’re now available to the average motorist, customized license plates have become associated with the obscenely rich, taking on a negative connotation as separating the common man from the unfeeling high rollers of upper society.
In 1931, Pennsylvania became the first state to issue customized license plates, which were limited to the driver’s initials. Connecticut soon followed, allowing drivers to choose up to four letters. Today, every state allows users to pay extra for vanity plates, with few restrictions. The plates are subject to the scrutiny of state officials; profanity and lewd phrases aren't allowed, a rule that has put vanity plates at the center of freedom of speech cases. In 2008, Arno T. Herwerth had to fight to keep his New York State license plate that read, “GETOSAMA.” California's recently released list of banned license plates reads like a sexting nightmare.
Vanity plates have proven to be a cash cow for states, generating a combined $200 million in annual fees. Almost 10 million motorists (about 3.8 percent of American drivers) have opted for customized plates, with Virginians accounting for nearly 1 out of 10 nationwide—thanks in part to the state’s lowest-in-the-country fee of just $10 a year. Other states charge as much as $65 per year; most of the revenue funds road-repair projects.
While the etymology of the term “vanity plates” is unclear, it was in wide use by the 1960s. The association between customized license plates and the wealthy and powerful dates back much farther; England’s royal family has used the registration A7, indicating that it was the seventh license plate registered in the country's history. Additionally, Princess Ann owned ANN 1 and OXR 1 belonged to Prince Philip.
In the world of custom plates, the biggest premium is placed on being number one. In 1903, when London first required motorists to register and tag their vehicles, Earl Russell set up camp outside of the London Council offices to ensure that he would receive A1, the first license plate in the country. Fervor to be number one hasn’t declined over the years: Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea Football Club, paid a reported $4.5 million to own VIP 1. In 2008, businessman Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri made that sum look like chump change, dropping a record-setting $14.3 million on a license plate labeled “1” in Abu Dhabi through Emirates Auction. “Our job at Emirates Auction is to make an expensive car without a prestigious plate worth nothing,” managing director Abdulla al Mannaie told ABC News. “Owners will change their car, but they will keep using the same plate for life.”
In Dotcom's case, the vanity plates are a source of intrigue but also have helped turn public opinion against him. Through reporting on his custom tags, media outlets paint a portrait of a guy with excessive wealth and a healthy ego. But for average civilians, vanity plates are an innocent, if frivolous, expense, giving motorists the chance to proclaim that they are a CATLVR or that they H82FLY. Some even believe vanity plates are humanizing, allowing drivers to communicate a personal story in a short, abbreviated form—a sort of vehicular Twitter. “Vanity plates are minimalist poetry in motion… [they] are powerful message platforms that allow motorists to tell compelling or funny stories in eight or fewer characters,” Stefan Lonce, who wrote a book about vanity plates, told the Associated Press. If vanity plates really do tell a driver’s story, Dotcom is a brash egomaniac with a hero complex—and likely to be in jail for a very long time.