Do you have a right to exclusive use of your name?

Dear Cecil:

How much right does a person have to his own name? For instance, here in duh Great City of Chicaguh, we have a well-known high-rise haven called SandburgVillage. Did Carl Sandburg or his estate have to give their permission to have this named after him? Could Sandburg have vetoed the idea? Could I name, and then advertise, an apartment complex as the Cecil Adams Estates?

Cecil replies:

Dear Mom:

Personally I think it’s about time they named something after me, being the acknowledged cultural monument that I am, but I take it you are using this purely as a hypothetical example. As it happens, the law never specifically deals with a person’s right to his name; rather, the subject is covered under the general heading of the right to privacy.

But "privacy" means different things in different contexts. A public figure, according to several rulings, has far less of a right to privacy than your ordinary schlub. It boils down to a question of proving damages: if someone uses your name against your will and in such a way as to substantially injure your reputation, the judge in your case might decide that your existence has been impoverished to the tune of x dollars. Then again, he may not: damage rulings, particularly those involving such intangibles as name and reputation, are notoriously capricious.

As an individual, you have no proprietary right to your name–no "copyright," so to speak. Names are in the public domain; you can name your kid whatever you want to. However, when it comes to naming a building, a company, or any other enterprise that smacks of commercial exploitation, we enter a very murky area of the kind so beloved by hustling lawyers.

In the case of Sandburg Village, the developers obtained the formal consent of Sandburg’s widow before using his name. But that may not have been strictly necessary. It could be argued that Carl Sandburg had achieved such an extraordinary degree of fame that his name was no longer "his"–that, in effect, he had no more privacy left to be invaded, and so could suffer no damage (being dead, anyway) from the use of his moniker. It’s also difficult to imagine what injury you might suffer from having a high-class housing project like Sandburg Village named after you.

On the other hand, Mother Cabrini, I don’t suppose having one of the country’s most notorious public housing projects named after you has done much to burnish your reputation. If I were you I’d sue the bastards.

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