Does someone need permission to use a celebrity's name in a song?

A great example of this is New Routine by Fountains of Wayne and Carl Reiner’s name is said very early on and almost sets up the feeling of the song.

The songwriter and the actor are both from New York so maybe he did ask first.

From what I saw on Saturday Night Live last weekend Ariana Grande wrote the song Pete Davidson about her boyfriend without his knowledge. Pretty sure that Billy Joel didn’t ask people’s for permission to use peoples names in “We Didn’t Light the Fire” before he released it.

Maybe it’s a New York thing.

Of course I suspect you are just plugging this new song.

No. It’s no different than using someone’s name in any other kind of text.

No. Why would they? A celebrity’s name is a matter of public record. If a song name checked some random private individual, they might have a cause for action to sue for invasion of privacy or, depending on the lyrics, maybe slander, but for celebrities? Even if they wanted to make a claim that their name is a brand, just name checking them in a song falls solidly within Fair Use. Joe DiMaggio was reportedly upset about how his name was used in “Mrs. Robinson”, but he had no grounds for legal action. From what I understand, rappers frequently name check each other, and often do so in derogatory terms. The other rapper then just comes back at the first rapper by name checking them in a song. No permission is needed, or sought, in either direction.

Agree that a song differs little from most other uses of a person’s name in other writings.

But, as usual, it’s not a 100% you’re off the hook thing. For example, if you sing about how a certain celeb raped and killed babies, then a lawsuit is going to happen. It could be considered defamation depending on the overall context. (I.e., is it clearly a fictional statement or would a listener assume you meant it to be true?) So, the usual fun with lawyers.

Given that song lyrics are generally considered fiction, you got a leg up. OTOH, if you said the same things in a newspaper article, look out.

Any number of people could have sued Paul Simon for “A Simple Desultory Philippic”, but I don’t think any of them actually took offense.

Several years ago, Lindsay Lohan tried to sue Pitbull for his line in his hit song “Give Me Everything,” “I got it locked up like Lindsay Lohan.” The suit was thrown out of court:

So if Shia LaBeouf can prove that he doesn’t eat human flesh he could sue for slander! The song even makes clear that this isn’t fiction, as LaBeouf is described as an “actual cannibal”!

In all seriousness, clearly Shia LaBeouf didn’t mind the whole thing, but if the original song was written without his knowledge (and I believe it was, IIRC) could the fact that he’s repeatedly referred to as an ACTUAL cannibal be grounds for defamation?

Nobody “owns” a name. Not even their own. I cannot, for example, say “Bob Smith (or whatever) is my name, and no one else is allowed to utter it in any context whatsoever.” So I could use anyone’s name in a song, or a book, or whatever.

So I could speak the lyrics, “Garth Brooks is cool,” or “Garth Brooks sucks,” or whatever, because I’m just offering my opinion on the guy. I can even criticize him or make jokes about him. This is because: (A) the legal standard for defamation is pretty steep. I have to knowingly make a false claim and the victim has to prove that I was deliberately dishonest and that they suffered damages as a result of my false statement. (B) The US protects ridicule and parody. An author’s right to parody a public figure is damned near bulletproof.

Okay, so what about infringement? If I made a country music album, put a picture of a cowboy on it, and wrote the name “Garth Brooks” on the cover, THAT would expose me to liability. In this case, Garth Brooks could sue me with the argument that I was deceiving or deliver confusing people into believing they were buying a Garth Brooks album. And he’d almost certainly win.

But this is not black and white. Gorillas, for example, could title their song “Clint Eastwood,” because there was zero chance anyone would mistake it for an actual Clint Eastwood product. Where do we draw the line? We don’t. There is no line. All we can do is hold up examples and say, “The courts have generally agreed that X is fair use…” or “Lawsuits in similar situations are usually successful.” There is no definitive piece of copyright or trademark law that says, “X is always okay,” or “X is never permitted.”

Serious answer: Sure. He just has to convince a jury of it. The pattern of jurisprudence indicates this is highly improbable. A few factors that will be explored at trial include:

  1. Was the statement false? Did the speaker know it was false?
  2. Was this intended as parody? Would any reasonable person believe it was factual information?
  3. Did the false statement result in demonstrable damages to Shia Lebeouf? (Eg He can prove someone refused to hire him because they heard he was a cannibal.)

In this instance, Lebeouf would have to clear all of these hurdles by convincing a jury that (A) was not a cannibal, (B) the singer knew he was not a cannibal, © reasonable people would find this convincing, (D) reasonable people would assume it was not parody, and (E) he suffered demonstrable damages.

The question is not about what exact words the singer used, but whether the jury agrees with Lebeouf’s argument.

I can’t imagine Rick Astley consenting to Nick Lowe’s “All Men are Liars.” “Do you remember Risk Astley?’ He had a hit, it was ghastly…”

TISM would’ve been in trouble

Many states do give celebrities a property interest in their personas, including name, image, identity, voice, etc. It is called a “right of publicity” or “personality right.”

However that doesn’t mean that the person has the right to approve any and all uses of his or her persona. It can only be used to stop commercial misappropriation.

That basically means that you are trading on that person’s identity to sell a product, implying endorsement.

Simply referring to a person in a news story, fictional story, or song lyrics normally won’t add up to commercial misappropriation.

Sure there’s a line. The line is between (actual harm) and (mere embarrassment). WHERE that line is, however, is up for debate every time.


We Didn’t Start the Fire


Speaking of Fountains of Wayne, I wonder :dubious: if the group got permission from a couple of real TV personalities to mention them by name in a song about news anchors coming on to each other:

*Chuck Scarborough turns to Sue Simmons
Says sugar you don’t know what you’re missin’ *

  • “Traffic and Weather”

Wait wait wait - you are telling me that Fountains of Wayne have songs other than “Stacy’s Mom”?

There was a US politician at … county level or so who wanted to stop the local newspaper from using his name. My google-fu is failing me, which is sad, because it was hilarious.

My understanding is that this is a pretty common trope among the uneducated and especially the SovCit crowd. Their only comprehension is that “This is mine,” and “Copyright means you can’t use it.” Every now and then someone will claim in court that other people are not allowed to write or speak their name, because they have no idea what the words “trademark” or “copyright” actually mean.

Hah! Found it. It made its way into the Washington Post even: