T Nation

Laws Regarding Celebrity Names


Some friends of mine who already make and sell their own clothing with their own logos/designs and I had an idea for a design we thought would be cool to do for the end of the year.

Part of it includes our own artwork which should be fine, and the other part we’d like to do, if possible, includes celebrity names (celebs who’ve died this year, ex. Kobe Bryant).

I’m struggling to find out what the laws are regarding this. My immediate assumption was that we couldn’t use someone’s name to make money, but after some googling it also sounded like it may be different if that person is famous and their name/image is used all the time, and it depends on if their name is patented, which, if the government website I used to check is believable, some of them are, most are not.

Basically, is it ever okay to use a famous person’s name for our own clothing that we intend to sell? I assume no but I’m wondering if there’s any loopholes. If no, is there anything we can do to get permission or anything?

If this doesn’t work out, no one will be hurt. It’s just something we do for fun and a little extra cash, but we wanted to find out if we could go ahead with this particular idea or not.

@Jewbacca - sorry dude, only lawyer I’m aware of on here. Any of this within your realm of expertise?

Seems to me that patenting a name would be pretty difficult. They are almost certainly Trademarked though, which would cause you problems.

I tend to use patent and trademarked interchangeably, not knowing what the difference is between them. I believe the website I used checked trademarks as well.

If anything is sold with their name on it, be sure some form of trademark exists. Kobe, for instance, is most certainly trademarked in some way, as is MJ. If you start sellinf stuff with names on it, you will be advised pretty quickly by a lawyer with a cease and desist order.

That’s what I figured. I assumed Kobe would be an issue, wasn’t sure about the others. For example, Chadwick Boseman. Now, the characters he played have their names on things, but I don’t know if he does.

I’m no lawyer but there should be information on the internet regarding royalty payments for using their names/likeness

You’d probably have to reach out to some lawyer or representative of theirs to ask permission … probably pitch the business idea to them and probably some expected revenue from the venture to legitimately use their names

Kobe Bryant had Nike sponsorship, so in respect to his memory JUST DO IT!

Unless your going to remortgage your house to invest in this new venture, go ahead. At worst they will threaten to take you to court, and you can agree to stop selling. No great loss to you.

Kobe Bryant, Kobe, Kobe!, KB (basically any variation you can think of) is trademarked for just about anything you can think of (including clothes):

Yeah, that’s what I was looking at. I saw that with his name, and Black Mamba was also taken…not sure if he had any other famous nicknames.

There is, haha, and I’m looking for it, just wanted to ask the question here as well.

I could do that. Wonder how easy it is for a normal person to get their attention. Or find out who they are.

Honestly, I’d considered this. I live in a small Midwest town, and this’ll literally be sold to like, 100 people max (I’d find it crazy if more people were interested), most/all of whom would be fellow college students. It isn’t going to spread very far or become very big, so the odds of anyone seeing it or finding out about are very small.

As far as money, the only cost would be buying the shirts (probably Gildan or something basic like that) and putting the design on them. No advertising, nothing like that. No one’s taking out any loans for this and no one’s honestly putting much work into this, it’s all really just for fun. We’d basically hope to just be able to make our money back.

But I should do the right thing, haha.

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No, it’s not remotely my area of expertise.

This is called “intellectual property” and there are two floors of lawyers in my firm that deal with that. When buying or selling a company, I know enough to see there might be an issue and get them involved.

That said, I can give you enough knowledge to probably get yourself in trouble, so why not? It’s 2020. What’s the worst that can happen?

First, some definitions, from memory. Not terribly precise.

Copyright – that law protects some original writing or picture or design. So music, a book, a picture, even software sometimes. They are typically pretty long-lived.

Trademark or Service Mark – these are words or designs (or even “trade dress” – like the design of a building – Pizza Hut, anyone? Red Lobster?) used to distinguish a product or service from another. So the McDonald’s “M”. The Nike “swoosh”. Uncle Ben’s Rice. Amazon A-Z arrow. Etc. These are valid for various times that roughly correspond to the period of use.

Patent – this a protection for a novel practical idea or invention. So a new drug. A new battery. A method or process of doing something. Etc.

Finally, there is the concept of “invasion of privacy” rights, which is not exactly intellectual property, but related (for your purposes), and which are really four related ideas: (1) intrusion into seclusion (like taking a camera into someone’s house); (2) appropriation of name or likeness (using someone’s photo to promote a good or service without permission; (3) public disclosure of private facts (printing someone’s medical records), and (4) placing a person in a false light (which is kind of of like slander – you state facts or opinions in a misleading way to effectively lie about someone.

Generally speaking, you can’t go generally use something that is copyrighted, patented, a trade or service mark, or that would be an invasion of privacy.

There are, however, exceptions. First is “fair use”. You can sample a bit of a copyrighted song or movie — rappers do this all the time. A couple of versus, seconds. You can use a bit of a movie when talking about a movie, etc.

You can also use a bit to parody it. So this is why there is “Butt Pirates of the Caribbean” with Captain Jacquelyn Swallows. (I just made that up, but I bet $, it exists.)

Or basically anything on SNL (at least back when it was funny 20 years ago).

And you can use someone’s picture for art — particularly if they are famous.

For example, Shepard Fairey (the Obama “Hope” painter did a picture of Michael Jordan without Mr. Jordan’s permission. Jordan was pissed for a bit, but didn’t have a case – and apparently they ended up making a deal where they both sell signed prints together.

Now, if Fairey stuck the picture on a brand of tennis shoes, Jordan could sue for appropriation of name or likeness. And he’d have crushed Fairey.

So a key weight factor is art vs. commercialization.

Another example would be a bar in Houston, formerly known as the “Velvet Elvis.” Apparently a cheesy place with a picture of Elvis. The Elvis estate is super protective of The King’s likeness, so they sued the crap out of the bar – and won. I believe this went to the SCOTUS. They were not being artistic. They were using Elvis’s likeness to sell booze.

Note, however, that cheese ball “artists” are free to sell velvet Elvis’s all day long. See the difference?

Now, I am not really sure what you are going to do. Stick a drawing of someone’s face on a shirt? Is it a parody? Is it art? Is it a political statement? All three?

Try to fit in the exception, and you are probably OK.

Probably. Doesn’t mean you won’t get sued.

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To focus the more general post above – by using someone’s name on a product you are dancing on the edge of “appropriation of a name or likeness”.

This could also be a trademark – Trump clothing? Hilton Hotels? Levi Strauss?

And a name probably harder than a likeness. You could put a picture of Trump giving “thumbs up” or looking like a dumb ass (your choice) all day long.

You call it “Trump T-Shirts” – and you’d probably get sued and lose.

So again – think fair use – parody, politics, art. And shoehorn yourself into it.

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I read that case in IP law too :smile:

You’ve got a great memory, btw. I had IP in Spring 2012 and have already forgotten more than you posted.

Piggybacking on @Jewbacca’s posts, here are a couple of good links to read more about fair use of copyrighted material:


On the Stanford page, use the “next page” tab to read further. From what I saw, it has good info and examples.

Nothing to add here except my kid ran the same type of business with a buddy of his in high school. They sold a lot of original shirts with their un-trademarked brand along with some not-so-original stuff.

So far, no lawyers have come looking for their slice of his multi-thousand dollar fashion empire.

Sadly, it was a different millennium when I was in an IP class.

Avoid the Internet and Times Square and you don’t exist to most copyright/TM lawyers.

A person here was selling a fishing lure named Hoobit, which he trademarked, and was approved. A couple of months the owners behind the trademark “The Hobbit” went after having trying to have the approval reversed. They succeded.

I’m thinking if you do this with any degree of success you’d be screwed.

Literally just put people’s names & the date of their death on the shirts. Would’ve probably used a cool font and had colored text and stuff like that, but yeah, it’s literally just their name.

All of the “marketing” my friends have done for their own things is done over Snapchat. Not sure how familiar you are with it, but those things aren’t viewable unless you’re friends with the person, and it’s not like a website that anyone can access like Facebook and Twitter. You’d have to have the app, be friends with the person, and view it in the 24 hours that it is viewable to see whatever they’re sharing.

Yeah, exactly. I’ve known people who’ve done this before, and I doubt they followed every law in place when they did it.

I don’t think it’ll be very successful, haha. Like I said, this is for the people within my small town’s college crowd. I’d be shocked if we sold 100 shirts, and it’d be really cool to just get 20 people to buy them. No intention of turning this into a real brand or trying to get a wide audience, just something fun to do.

Now I’m considering just going ahead and doing it…and also wondering if that’d be extremely dumb of me. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Sounds pretty artistic to me. Gothy, even.

Yes, that’s what I meant. It falls under the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” legal defense.

I’ve never heard of a lawsuit defendant without any money. Never got the point, myself.