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-   -   Legal use of someone's name (https://www.dvinfo.net/forum/taking-care-business/50524-legal-use-someones-name.html)

Steve Williamson September 4th, 2005 01:30 PM

Legal use of someone's name
I am writing a feature-length screenplay about a young woman suffering from schizophrenia. Although fictional, it is loosely based on a real person. The problem is, the real woman's name would make an incredible title for the movie. Do I have a legal right to use someone's name as a movie title, especially if some of the scenes mirror (to one degree or another) events in a real person's life?

It's obvious that a movie can be named after a person, knowing that there are likely to be real people with that same name ... but what happens when the story's events share similarity as well?

One important note: Getting permission from the individual to use her name is NOT an option, and for numerous reasons not the least of which is that her "mental state" is probably not healthy enough for her signature to stand up in a court of law.

Rob Lohman September 4th, 2005 02:20 PM

I would not even want to try that. Too much chance of it going wrong.

*Edit: I removed my last line. The advice below is far better!

Richard Alvarez September 4th, 2005 03:05 PM


You've stated on a public forum that the story is 'loosely based' on this womans life. In fact, the use of her name would reveal that fact, you admit. The disclaimer that normally follows a movie. "Any relations to persons living or dead is purely accidental" no longer applies to your script.

You are going to need her permission to write her story and sell it.

As to simply using a person's name for a title, that's a job for 'errors and ommisions' insurance.

My advice, don't write someones story without their permission. If it's close enough to have you worried about it, talk with an attorney.

Steve House September 4th, 2005 03:25 PM

Not a lawyer speaking, just offering an opinion. If she's been committed to a psychiatric hospital it may be that a guardian has been appointed or someone granted power of attorney to act on her behalf so I think you'd best track them down. Using her name and recognizable life details without permission seems to me to be really tickling the dragon's tail. In fact, recognizable life details WITHOUT using her real name seems almost as dangerous. This is one of those areas where you definitely need the services of a lawyer.

Jerry Porter September 8th, 2005 11:42 AM

Pear Jam originally wanted to call itself by the name of a particular sports figure. He said no. They came up with Pearl Jam and named thier first album 10 his number. I belive you need permission. Especially with the above comments.

Steve Williamson September 8th, 2005 04:04 PM

Based on the feedback here, I've decided to a) NOT name the film after any particular individual, and b) NOT name any character after any particular individual. I do still intend to base some of the scenes on actual events, although they will be changed somewhat to avoid any exact replication.

HOWEVER, the question still remains ... what about so called "unauthorized biographies." Aren't they about real people and don't they use real people's names in their titles? Something to think about.

Paul Tauger September 8th, 2005 04:24 PM


Originally Posted by Richard Alvarez
The disclaimer that normally follows a movie. "Any relations to persons living or dead is purely accidental" no longer applies to your script.

Okay, obviously, I can't give legal advice to the OP, so I'm going to just discuss some general principles:

1. Generally, you don't need someone's permission to do a film, book or other public presentation about them. You do, however, have to be concerned about a couple of things:

a. False light defamation/defamation: Your story had better be 100% true; if not, you've incurred liability for defamation. Even if your story is 100% true, if you portray the person in an inaccurate manner that results in a negative impression, then you are liable for false light defamation.

Note that the standard for defamation is different public figures than for private ones.

b. Commercial appropriation of likeness statutes: Many states preclude the use of someone's name, likeness or voice in connection with commercial activity.

c. There are invasion of privacy torts, the details of which I don't recall off the top of my head (this is an area I don't usually get in to).

d. Intentional infliction of emotional distress/negligent infliction of emotional distress are two torts that are implicated by making statements that a reasonable person would find sufficiently "outrageous" as to cause harm.

2. The disclaimer quoted by Richard . . .doesn't mean anything! The test is, and always has been, would a reasonably prudent person believe that the film/book/television program/play is about the plaintiff. All the disclaimers in the world won't change that.

Richard Alvarez September 8th, 2005 04:52 PM

Thanks for the legal cites Paul. So here's a quickie, what is the value of the disclaimer at the end of a film? What particular 'exposure' are they hoping to cover with that?

Paul Tauger September 8th, 2005 06:15 PM


Originally Posted by Richard Alvarez
Thanks for the legal cites Paul. So here's a quickie, what is the value of the disclaimer at the end of a film? What particular 'exposure' are they hoping to cover with that?

It discourages people from seeking a lawyer and filing suit, i.e. "Well, they've got that disclaimer so I guess I can't sue, even though the lead character has the same name, address and social security number as me." It also allows arguing that, "no reasonable person would believe what we said was about you, because we expressly said that it wasn't." (Belief by a third party is an essential element of defamation).

If I do a film called, "Sleeze Bag -- Confessions of a Debutante Hooker," in which the central character is nameed "London Marriott," no disclaimer in the world is going to exculpate me from liability (though, bear in mind that the higher public-figure defamation standard would apply).

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