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When May Others Profit from Celebrities' Names?

Do we own our names in the same way we own cars and houses? In the United States, at least, we do, especially if we happen to be famous.

You cannot use a celebrity's name in an advertisement, for instance, without paying the celebrity something. For that matter, you or I could sue and probably win if, without permission, someone uses our names to make money. And a pending federal lawsuit is exploring this matter even further.

The case involves the game of baseball, which keeps careful track of the statistical performances of its players. Fans religiously compare players based on their numerical achievements in all sorts of categories, and millions of ordinary Americans play a sort of "pretend" baseball in what are called "fantasy leagues." They assemble make-believe teams using real players' names. You put Randy Johnson of the Yankees on your team, for instance, and I pick David Wells of the Red Sox. And so on. If your players do better statistically, your fantasy team wins.

That's where the identity issue comes in. Major League Baseball is suing a small company that operates one of these fantasy leagues, arguing that it should pay a fee for the right to use players' names and statistics. The company replies that baseball names and numbers are public records that newspapers write about all the time, for free.

This case could be enormously significant to all sorts of businesses, as one law professor told the New York Times, if the court rules that the fantasy league must pay money to use players' names. Television game shows, for instance, use the names of real celebrities and sports figures all the time without paying anything.

So what's in a name? Well, perhaps . . . some cash!