Can a Person's Name Be Copyrighted?

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Can you copyright your name if you use it in your business? In general, no, but you may be able to trademark your name, and there can be some good reasons for doing so.

Trademark vs. Copyright

Copyright law is intended to protect original works of authorship, such as paintings, books, screenplays and musical compositions. It doesn't apply to business names or personal names.

Sometimes a name is used in the title of a book or a screenplay (such as Harry Potter) or in a biography title, but in these cases, it is the book, not the name itself, that is copyrighted.

Trademarks, on the other hand, are used to protect names, slogans, logos and the like that are used in business. So, if you use your name as part of your business, you can file a trademark application for your name.

Many large corporations are known by someone's name. Think of the Ford car company, the Ralph Lauren clothing business or the Kroger supermarket chain.

Why File a Trademark Application?

Whenever you use a name, slogan, logo or another identifying mark in your business, you automatically have certain rights.

If someone else uses your intellectual property to confuse customers into thinking they're doing business with you, to benefit from the goodwill that you've developed around the mark or to take advantage of your clever idea, you can sue. By using your mark in your business, you have certain common-law rights in regard to it.

However, your ability to win a case in court and collect damages is greatly enhanced if you file a trademark application and secure a registered trademark. Doing so gives you many more rights than you have in common law.

To register a trademark, you must show that you're using the name in a business (or planning to use it) and that it doesn't infringe on other existing trademarks. It also can't be so generic as to be unfair to other people.

For example, John's Products might be unfair if your goal is to keep anyone else named John from promoting any products.

What's in a Name?

When it comes to your name, you must show that your name has a secondary meaning – that it's associated with certain types of products or services in a specific area.

If your name is Allison Wheeler, you can't trademark all uses of the name Allison Wheeler. You have to show that people in the community associate that name with a product or service. If you run a financial consulting business in Milwaukee, for example, you could trademark the name Allison Wheeler in conjunction with financial services in the greater Milwaukee area.

As a result, if someone wanted to start another financial business in southeastern Wisconsin and use that name, you could sue.

However, if someone else named Allison Wheeler wanted to start Allison's Milwaukee Taco Emporium, your trademark probably wouldn't stop her, because there's no connection between the two businesses. Consumers are unlikely to assume that your consulting business also serves Mexican food.

What if someone else named Allison Wheeler wanted to start a financial consulting business in her name in Nevada? That would probably be OK, too, because it's unlikely that any customers would confuse the two businesses.

However, if Allison in Nevada started advertising for customers in Wisconsin, you could bring a lawsuit to stop her.

You may feel it is unfair that someone with the same name as you trademarked the name for business first and you can't use it in your business. That's the nature of trademark law.

If your name is McDonald and you want to use your name for your new fast-food restaurant, you'll be seeing someone in court.

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