The Business of Writing > Laws about Writing

Can you copyright a name - any name?

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Matthew S.:
Okay... to make a short story long I've been having a discussion with someone who says you can copyright a person's name.  I say no.  I say I can write a piece of fiction and make my character Rush Limbaugh if I wanted to as long as I emphasized that it wasn't THE Rush Limbaugh, or George W. Bush or the CEO of a large corporation.  I could even use the real person as themselves in my fiction and there's nothing they can do about it ("I met Mr. Limbaugh while eating lunch at a corner diner.  He was quite a quy.")  He says they have the rights to their name and can sue.  I say there is no right to a name - I myself know of at least one other Matthew Schoonover (who apparently is wanted for questioning in Alabama or somewhere in connection with a bank robbery).  I say that I can register a domain name under any one of these names provided it isn't already taken, making the ownership of the name mine on the internet - and what can they sue me for if I don't say anything bad about my characters.  And if I do say anything bad about my characters they maybe - maybe - could sue for libel, but they would then have to prove that my writing caused them to lose money.

Anyone care to comment or elucidate?

Matthew S.

To my knowledge you cannot copyright any proper noun; person, product, or thing.  You can protect a name by filing it as a trademark - but that is the only protection I know of.

That said - there are different laws for names in the public 'view' and private names.  The useage of names in the public view is much more liberal.  If you are a public figure it is much much harder to sue someone for slander or libel.  (The difference is that slander is spoken and libel is written, but both cause the person harm.)  If you are a public political figure it gets even harder.

BUT if someone spread damaging misinformation about you or me we could sue their socks off.

My belief is that you are partly correct about the domain bit on the internet.  The part that I think is off is that you have to prove they lost money due to your libel.  That is one possibility, but I don't believe it is that limited.  They might be able to prove, for example, malicious mischief, or cause to do harm to their reputation.  Generally, public figures don't respond at all unless someone is putting out false and damaging statements that are causing harm.


From the copyright office obtain a copy of Title 17. It is often refered to as the bible of copyrights.


Bob Mueller:
Your big issue on the domain name is not libel, but "cyber-squatting." If Rush Limbaugh can show that you're making money off of people thinking it's his site, and you're doing nothing to deter people from thinking they've gotten Rush's site, and you're refusing a reasonable offer to sell the domain, it might be taken from you.

Rush would have to file an action with ICANN, and it would take a while, but if he won, you'd be out the domain, your attorney fees, and his.


--- Quote ---If Rush Limbaugh can show that you're making money
--- End quote ---

Bob, who would Rush have to demonstrate this too?  Is 'cyber-squatting' a federal (FCC) offense?  It sounds to me as if the money angle makes it fraud.  But, again, who would have jurisdiction in a fraud suit?  ICANN being a private agency would not have binding judiciary privileges.

Very interesting that he would have to first offer to buy your domain.  My mysterious mind is trying to come up with a use for that tidbit.

Of course if someone were making money this way I would suspect the IRS might be interested too.  The mind boggles and I'm staying up way too late playing with this tempting idea  :D


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