What if my name were Steve Jobs?
December 10, 2012 8:06 PM   Subscribe

So I was on the interstate today here in the beautiful Commonwealth of Virginia, and I noticed an 18-wheeler that had mud flaps from a place called the John Wayne Truck Wash and Chrome Shop, and it raised a question for me around copyrights.

I don't know the first thing about the John Wayne Truck Wash and Chrome Shop, other than the fact that I googled it, and it is apparently in Pennsylvania. Now, I am assuming that John Wayne (the actor) has his name and likeness copyrighted, and that someone could send a cease-and-desist order to this business if they have not obtained the proper permission.

But suppose for a second that the owner of the business is also named John Wayne. What then?

I guess what I am asking is whether or not you can use your own name in a business, even if the name is also owned and otherwise protected by someone famous.

Just curious. Thanks for your help.
posted by 4ster to Law & Government (8 answers total)
Names can't be copyrighted.

If your name were Steve Jobs, and you wanted other people to not form the Steve Jobs One Button Computer Company Ltd, you'd want to look at a trademark.
posted by pompomtom at 8:18 PM on December 10, 2012

You have confused two related ideas: copyright and trademarks. Generally you can't copy right a name and trademarks are much more narrowly applied.

Take the case of Paul Newman. He has branded salad dressings with his name and undoubtedly has a trademark to that effect in that space. But that wouldn't prevent another John Newman from starting up John Newman Electrical Contracting. Now if JNEC tried to link their company to the actor they'd have a problem but as long as they kept to their own business they'd be fine (though of course they may be hampered by legal activity beyond their ability to pay).

Or if their was already a registered business called Paul Newman Electrical the local registration board would probably prevent the creation of the new company name.
posted by Mitheral at 8:20 PM on December 10, 2012

Sorry, eager commit.

...so in your example the John Wayne Truck Wash and Chrome Shop can probably have that as a trademark, as it is not likely to be confused with John Wayne, the actor.
posted by pompomtom at 8:21 PM on December 10, 2012

This has come up with McDonarld's in a number of circumstances, including those involving a Mr. McDonald who wants to name a restaurant after himself. McDonald's tends to have a bigger legal department than the average new restauranteur, so they tend to get their way. As mentioned above, trademark law is the issue here, not copyright.

In addition, courts also recognize Personality/Publicity Rights, which might be used to prevent a business from falsely associating itself with with a celebrity. The details tend to depend a lot on caselaw and vary greatly from state to state.
posted by zachlipton at 8:27 PM on December 10, 2012

Thanks, everyone!
posted by 4ster at 5:12 AM on December 11, 2012

Something along this line came up when the Coca-Cola company bought the Taylor family wine business in Hammondsport, NY. Walter S. Taylor disagreed with the methods they started using to produce wine, was forced out of the company and opened his own winery on land the Taylor family had once owned. The labels had "Walter S. Taylor" at the top and Coke successfully sued to prevent him from using his name on the label. For years the labels had the "Taylor" blacked out and he generated a lot of publicity and sales, calling himself "Walter S. Blank."

Currently the labels have the winery name, Bully Hill, at the top but no mention of the Taylor name except in certain cases when his artwork (he was also an artist) is used.
posted by tommasz at 5:30 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in the case of Mr. Nissan's website.
posted by Yorrick at 6:26 AM on December 11, 2012

When the Olympics comes to a town, they tend to fire a barrage of lawsuits at any local business that appears to be trying to associate with its trademarks; and yet it's not uncommon for, say, a Greek restaurant to have Olympic in its name. These businesses usually kowtow with a name-change to save themselves a lawsuit, which is unfortunate.

I've often wondered what would happen should the IOC's lawyers find their way to Seattle, or, god help them, Olympia Washington, where literally hundreds if not thousands of businesses are named for the Olympic Mountain Range to the west of Seattle, or the Olympic Peninsula on which it rests, to say nothing of the aforementioned state capital which shares the name.

Trademark scope is often mentioned in a trademark application, so that someone selling John Wayne Ornaments can peacefully coexist with John Wayne Truck Wash-- nobody is likely to confuse one for the other.

In any case, I searched TESS, the Trademark Electronic Search System at the US Patent and Trademark Office, and while there are some marks related to the actor, I don't see any for the Truck Wash.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:11 PM on December 11, 2012

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