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Celebrities Trademark Their Image

Why Don’t More Celebrities Trademark Their Image?

Lindokuhle Mkhize

Lindokuhle Mkhize

05 September 20235 min read

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Celebrities Trademark Their Image

Trademark law lets celebrities protect their image from unauthorized use. It also helps prevent confusion about the source or endorsement of a product endorsement service. So, why don't more celebrities trademark their image? In this article, we probe deeper into the question using our legal lens.

Protecting image and likeness

Famous people can trademark their image, but it's challenging. Consumers often see celebrity images as representing the person, not a brand. So, it can be hard to distinguish between a celebrity's image and a product.

If a celebrity were to trademark their image, it could create confusion among consumers.

For instance, imagine a t-shirt solely featuring a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. Would people interpret it as a representation of Mr. King himself or as a brand of t-shirt?

martin luther king, press conference, black

Most consumers would view it as depicting Mr. King rather than a t-shirt brand. This poses a challenge for celebrities seeking to acquire trademark registrations for their images, as their likeness is already inherently recognizable to consumers. 

When an image cannot effectively identify the source of a product or differentiate one person's goods from similar ones legally portraying the same image:

The USPTO may not consider it a valid trademark.

Famous people have been trademarking their names for several decades, but the personal brand era has complicated it.

Trademark law has recognized the right of celebrities to control their images. The aim is to prevent confusion about the origin, sponsorship, or approval of products. 

Previous court cases, like the one involving Bob Marley's estate, have showcased successful legal actions against the unauthorized use of celebrity images without proper licensing. While it's not uncommon for celebrities to use trademark law to prevent others from using their image, it's more unusual for them to actively seek trademark protection and control for their own images.

Usain Bolt’s trademark success

One celebrity athlete who successfully trademarked a symbol similar to their image is Usain Bolt.

He trademarked his famous "lightning bolt" pose. But there are reasons why his application was successful. He used a generic silhouette instead of a specific image of himself. He also filed for trademark registration based on his foreign registration. This made the trademark office process easier.

">usain bolt, 100 m run, 100 m

Trademark infringement 

Trademark infringement can occur when unauthorized parties use a celebrity's likeness without permission. 

Celebrities can protect themselves by registering their own name or likeness as a trademark. However, several factors must be considered to succeed in obtaining a trademark registration. 

For instance:

The trademark depiction should be distinctive enough to differentiate it from the person it represents. 

Think about a generic silhouette, like the one used by Usain Bolt when trademarking his "lightning bolt" pose. This can help focus on the identifying symbol rather than the specific image of the celebrity. 

Foreign trademark registrations, like Bolt's, can also support US applications. Although they might be considered weaker without sufficient evidence of use in the US.

Bringing Right of Publicity and False Endorsement claims

Trademark law also helps celebrities avoid false endorsement claims. Consider if someone uses a celebrity's likeness on a product without permission. It could mislead consumers into thinking the celebrity endorses the product.

Celebrity image and intellectual property

Trademark applications for celebrity marks present unique challenges. Celebrities can obtain trademark registration. But it requires careful consideration. You must assess the distinctiveness of the mark. You should also look at its ability to identify the source of goods or services.

Want to learn more? Get all you need to know about well-known and famous trademarks on our blog. 


Do celebrities trademark their name?

Actor Tom Hanks has registered his name as a trademark. This was for use in connection with a variety of products and services. It included books, motion pictures, and television programs. So, the answer to the question is yes. Celebrities can register their names as trademarks. 

Can a celebrity copyright their face?

"Can I trademark my face?" is a common question. The short response is "no." The term "copyright" refers to human-made creative endeavors. The creative work must be the result of purposeful decision-making and deliberate effort.

Why do celebrities trademark things?

Many celebrities think they can come up with a ton of ways to make money off their catchphrase or image. They might want to offer t-shirts, mugs, or other items as a form of merchandising. 

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Lindokuhle Mkhize, a skilled creative copywriter and content lead at Trademarkia, brings a wealth of experience in driving innovation and managing teams. With previous success in starting and growing the Innovation and Marketing department at her former creative agency, Lindokuhle boasts expertise in leadership and delivering compelling content. Based in South Africa, Lindokuhle's work focuses on key themes of creativity, effective communication, and strategic marketing.