Intellectual Property Law

A Guide to Using Celebrity Names and Likenesses

Celebrities undoubtedly garner incredible amounts of attention (both good and bad). Many businesses, and even people, try to tie themselves to certain stars. However, when you want to use a celebrity name or likeness, whether it’s pushing your hamburger chain, mimicking a style of dress, to even using pictures of a celebrity to hawk a product, you must follow specific laws.

The law states that posting information or pictures of someone else without their permission can make you guilty of infringing on a person's rights. Even celebrities who are deceased may have certain rights to protect their image (the estate would uphold these rights for the celebrity).

Can You Ever Use A Celebrity Likeness?

While you could be sued for unauthorized commercial use of someone's likeness, there are times when it is ok to use a celebrity's image. The simplest method is to get the celebrity's permission to use their likeness. This may require:

  • Fees or royalties paid to the celebrity
  • Signing a legal agreement from the celebrity

These tactics will likely shield you from a lawsuit for the unauthorized usage of their image.

State-Specific Laws

Some states will allow a company or person to use the likeness of a celebrity without having to get permission. This law applies the theory that by being a celebrity, they have given up a right to privacy. Currently, there are 24 states that have right to publicity laws on the books.

Still, in many states, despite the fact a person is a celebrity, they are still allowed certain privacy rights. And many companies cannot be stopped from producing cheap knock-offs of the actual person (from "Snooki" to "Cookie").

Exceptions to the Law

There are some exceptions to the use of celebrity likenesses, such as using someone's name or image for reporting or commentary purposes. However, what exactly constitutes "news" and "commentary" is a hotly debated topic.

While classic print newspapers would likely fall under the "news" category, where does a blog fall? Is it news, or something else?

Even if you are trying to report news and use a celebrity picture, you must:

  1. Show some "reasonable relationship" between the content of the news or commentary and the celebrity (i.e., a story about puppies with a picture of Britney Spears would not qualify).
  2. Not copy intellectual property (i.e., when the media appropriates a celebrity's entire performance without compensation, such as posting a video of a whole concert).

Who Can Sue For Unlawful Use of Name or Likeness?

While it may seem silly to say, only a person can sue for the unlawful use of name or likeness. This is important to understand because a corporation or other organization cannot sue for “misappropriation of name or likeness,” if someone uses a gecko that looks like the Geico character. The company could sue for a violation of copyright or trademark for the character, however.