Use of name/likeness in a film

Would I need to secure clearance to use a living person's name in a film? The film concerns a real historical event (though a dramatization, rather than a documentary) and is not defamatory in any way. The person's name is mentioned only twice in the script, and their image is never used. Thanks

Asked about 6 years ago in Maryland
Categories: Patents, Trademarks, Copyright

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James R Coleman

Answer by James R Coleman

VerifiedWorldwide lawyer

As is so often the case in law, the answer is "it depends".  It may depend on who the person is, how the name is used, whether you are profiting or otherwise benefiting from the use of the name, and so on.  It could depend on the living person's attitude toward his/her name being used.  It could depend on what state law applies.  It could depend on so many factors that no specific answer would be wise for a lawyer to make. 

If it is a dramatization, could you change the name in a way that the living person is not identified, even indirectly.  For example, if the person is Elton John, it would fool no one for you to change the name to Elton Bob.  Is the person a public figure?  If so, you could have more rights to use a name or pseudonym so long as you do not act with malice.
If you refer to an incident and it is clear from the description who the person is, that is not as safe as if the incident is entirely fictional.  For example, if the story is about a baseball umpire who makes a bad call at first base that costs a team the World Series, it would be clear to most fans that the ump is Don Denkinger even if you call him Tom Jones.

The easiest thing to do is stick to fiction.

Posted about 6 years ago

Please note that this is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice to you. Legal advice pertaining to your particular situation can only be provided by a lawyer who has met with you to obtain all pertinent background information necessary to give you a formal legal opinion. For formal legal advice, hire a lawyer (many give a free first consultation). Contact James R Coleman, or search the Lawyer Directory.

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