People register trademarks in order to acquire exclusive rights over the use of something in commerce. These exclusive rights are acquired to prevent the unfair use of the trademarked item and sometimes to preserve a reputation from being tarnished by others. While trademark rights can also be acquired over signature items, they are most often acquired over logos, brand names (i.e. McDonalds), and even personal names. It is fascinating that something bestowed upon you for free could one day be used to generate millions of dollars. This is the case for personal names. Having trademark rights over your own name almost seems like it should be a birthright. However, there are even more stringent regulations over trademarking personal names. The use of personal names to identify and market goods and services has brought fortune to many, including some of our favorite celebrities. Because of the fortune that could come from the trademark rights of a personal name, there is often much dispute over the ownership of these rights.
Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. Jordan’s positive reputation around the world has made his name a heavily-sought after commodity. As a result, Jordan has given permission to several brands to use his name to market their products. Jordan obtains royalties just from his name being attached to shoes, shirts, and several other products. “Nothing is more important than protecting your own name,” Michael Jordan stated, after winning a dispute overseas regarding his trademarked name. A Chinese company, Qiaodan Sports, was selling and marketing shoes and other clothing items under the name “Qiaodan,” which translates to “Jordan” in Mandarin. The historically visitor-unfriendly court in China declared that Jordan did indeed own the Mandarin transliteration of his name.
Beyoncé, who is also an avid protector of her own trademarked name and anything close to it, failed in her efforts to trademark her daughter Blue Ivy’s name. Blue Ivy is the name of an event planning company that had been established years before the birth of Beyoncé’s daughter. The United States Patent and Trademark Office ruled that Beyoncé could not own the trademark rights to Blue Ivy and allowed the company to continue using the name for event planning and related marketing and advertising.
Not owning your name can result in the loss of a major financial asset. In professional wrestling, if your first official wrestling match occurs within a major wrestling company, that company owns the rights to your name. For example, Cody Rhodes, son of the late wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, wrestled his first match for World Wrestling Entertainment (“WWE”). After parting ways with the company, he struggled to market himself under the name “Cody.” He hoped that his fans would eventually associate “Cody” with the reputation and work product he developed under the WWE-owned name “Cody Rhodes.”
Not owning the rights to your name also became a huge problem for professional wrestler Ryan Reeves, who wrestled under the name Ryback. Reeves fell into the same trap as Cody Rhodes. Reeves legally changed his name to “Ryback,” however, taking a more drastic step to use the name that he worked hard to make a valuable financial asset. This strategic move allowed Reeves to wrestle for other companies and sell merchandise under the name that made him millions because, at the end of the day, it is his real name. Fans everywhere will still associate his merchandise with the work product and reputation he created in WWE, which will allow Ryback to continue to generate the same or a similar amount of royalties he was making prior to leaving WWE.
In this age of increased internet marketing, where “overnight” stars and social media celebrities are forming brands of their own, the protection and ownership of personal names are of the utmost importance. Not owning the rights to your personal name could result in its misuse and potentially missing out on a fortune. To the age-old Shakespearean question: “What’s in a name?” Trademark law emphatically answers: “Everything.”
*Darius L. Lamonte is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Managerial Science from Georgia State University. Upon graduation, he intends to practice civil litigation and entertainment law.