How to Use Famous People in Fiction, Art, & Film | Creative Law Center

How to Use Famous People in Fiction, Art, & Film

In the first chapter of his book Ready Player One, Ernest Cline makes reference to no fewer than 26 famous people and real life cultural artifacts from the 1980's. He talks about video games (of course), famous video game designers, and computer systems. He lists bands and quotes lyrics from a song and lines from a popular movie. He includes Hollywood directors, their films, and their stars. He names TV shows and name brand televisions. He taps real magazines, artists, and books and drops them into his novel. 

Cline uses trademarks and other peoples' names, creative work, and invented worlds like a mash-up. All in the first few pages. All of it is the creative work of others, or in the case of celebrities, the publicity rights of others. 

How You Include Famous People in Fiction Matters

Famous people make appearances throughout the book. The landscape of the 1980's is critical to Cline's story line, it roots the story in reality. As he weaves famous authors, artists, actors, directors, musicians, programmers, and computer hackers of the time into his story, he moves away from reality and creates his own unique world.  

Cline's creation of a dystopian future and the virtual reality that envelops it is the first key to why he is able to use those individuals in his story without permission. 

The second key to the fair use of those personas is their fact-based inclusion in the story. They pop up almost as if they were in news reels—John Hughes made this film; Warren Robinette planted the first video game Easter egg. He doesn't make them do anything that they didn't actually do in real life. He hasn't fictionalized them. 

I'm speculating here, but my guess is that when Cline wrote Ready Player One, he was more concerned with depicting the '80's, its video games, and its culture with historical accuracy than he was about naming celebrities from the era. Those famous people are just part of the fabric of the '80's culture that is used to build his vision of the future. In short, Cline's use of celebrities is artistically relevant to his story.

Writers, artists, or filmakers who want to use famous people in their stories, art, or film often worry about whether they should spend the time crafting a plot line, image, or scene around that person only to be told by an agent, publisher, or producer that they can’t do it that way. 

If you are writing a story that takes place today, yesterday, or even in the future, your story line may call for an appearance by a famous person.  

It can be done. Knowing how it works can keep you from getting turned down by a publisher or sued by a celebrity, forcing you to rewrite your story or rework your image.

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What Makes a Person Famous?

A famous person is someone whose name or image has independent commercial value. That means someone who earns their living, or makes money, because of who they are—like Winona Ryder or Matthew Broderick, both of whom are mentioned in the book. Their names and pictures have value.

If you are in the business of selling t-shirts, for example, you have a better chance of selling more t-shirts with a picture of Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller on it than a picture of your Uncle Marty. Matthew Broderick's name and image have value. By selling t-shirts with his image on them and without permission or a license, you have violated Matthew Broderick's right of publicity (and perhaps the copyright to the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off).

The Right of Publicity

The right of publicity is an individual’s right to control and profit from the commercial use of their name, likeness and persona, in other words—their identity. It's usually a state law issue. The closest federal equivalent is a trademark false endorsement claim—the idea that by using a celebrity's persona in your work, you're suggesting that celebrity has endorsed it. Protecting someone from the loss of commercial value resulting from the unauthorized appropriation of their identity for commercial purposes is the principal purpose of this claim.

First Amendment Protection for Creative Work

Ready Player One is not commercial speech. It is an artistic work which does not propose a commercial transaction. It is entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment. The question is whether the rights of publicity of the individuals depicted in the book must yield to the First Amendment rights of the author and publisher of Ready Player One.

The use of the celebrities' names is artistically relevant to the novel. Their presence in the novel sets the tone of the story and anchors it in the '80's. There is no suggestion that these famous folk endorse the book or had any role in its publication. 

The mention of the celebrities’ names in the context of accurate, historical information has nothing to do with the commercial promotion or marketing of the book. The reference to the celebrities and their accomplishments is purely informational in order to evoke the cultural setting of the '80's. Cline does not have any of the celebrities play a roll in the story (except, see below). He doesn't give them any agency or attribute actions to them which didn't happen.

Those are the two prongs of the test that determine whether a creative work is protected by the First Amendment: (1) the use of the personas is artistically relevant to the creative work; and (2) the use is not misleading as to who endorses the work.

First Amendment Protection Tip

Creative work is entitled to First Amendment protection if: (1) the use of the famous persona is artistically relevant to the work; and (2) the use is not misleading as to the source or content of the work.

In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline has satisfied both prongs of the test. First, the use of all the famous people is artistically relevant to recalling the cultural environment of the '80's where his story finds its roots. Second, by placing the celebrities in accurate, historic context, readers are not misled into thinking that one of those celebrities is endorsing the work.

Except Maybe these Famous People Gave Permission

In Chapter 0020, Cline gives two famous people some agency in his story. It's election time in the OASIS. All the users get to vote for the president and vice-president of the OASIS User Council. Parzival votes to re-elect Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton noting, "There were no term limits, and those two geezers had been doing a kick-ass job of protecting user rights for over a decade."

Technically, not historically accurate. At least as far as it concerns the OASIS.

Slightly out of focus picture of yours truly with Cory Doctorow at a book signing for Information Doesn't Want to Be Free

I'm speculating again, but Cline may have gotten permission from those two to include them in the story the way he did. I think they probably got a kick out of playing protectors of the OASIS.

It's the Same Test for Art and Film

I've been discussing the right to use of famous people in literature. First Amendment rights extend equally to visual art and film. In fact, the leading case on the issue dealt with a challenge by Ginger Rogers to a film called  "Ginger and Fred." The film is about two fictional Italian cabaret performers, nicknamed “Ginger” and “Fred” after the famous dancing duo. Ginger Rogers sued the producers of the film for various violations, alleging that the title of the film was likely to confuse moviegoers into believing that Rogers sponsored, endorsed or was otherwise affiliated with the film.

Ginger Rogers lost the case. The two-part test of artistic relevance and not misleading as to source or endorsement is called the Rogers test. The Rogers test has been expanded over the years to apply to not just the title of a work, but to include the creative content and visual imagery, as well. It hasn't been adopted everywhere, but it is a good starting point when you're thinking about whether you can include famous people in your fiction, art, or film.

About the Author

Kathryn Goldman helps artists, writers, and other creative professionals make a living from their art by teaching them how to protect their work and enforce their rights. She is an attorney who writes these posts to help you be more thoughtful about intellectual property and the law when you write your stories, create your art, and build your business.

  • Amanda says:

    I’m glad you wrote this article! I’ve been toying with using a real name verses a fictitious one with a legal case that is public knowledge because I don’t have ALL of the details. My story isn’t based off of this celeb at all. In fact, the celeb is only mentioned because I have a lawyer as a main character and I want to point out how good she is at PR and that’s it. I’ve decided to just make up a name and change the situation slightly because I just don’t want any trouble. I can always make it MORE fictitious as the second, third, and fourth drafts come into play.

  • Kathryn, could I name a play: “Herb and Lenny at the Plaza Hotel.” ? Is the hotel title off limits?

  • Flavia says:

    I was catfish for a person using a famous singer and I wrote a book about it , how that affect me and what i did until I discover that person was faking, my life was almost destroyed with that lied online love history!

  • Jeff says:

    Thank you for this enlightening piece, Kathryn.

    How about if I write short biographies for children about famous people who are still alive? Is that fair game? Or do I need to ask permission/licenses from 365 living people if I have a 365 Days type of short biographies?

    I’m asking because I see dozens upon dozens of short biographies titled “Who is Lebron James?” Who is “Michael Jordan?” “Who is Elon Musk?” and more! Although, these are individual short storybooks.

    Thank you so much. You are helping us all save tons of headaches and financial disasters! 🙂

    ~ Jeff B.

  • Denise Jiang says:

    I’m writing a book and the some of the characters are decendents of famous, powerful influencers that have passed away. Am I allowed to use the last name and say that they are related?

    • I cannot give you a definitive answer without more details and analysis. But I will say that you need to rephrase your question from “Am I allowed . . .” to “What is my risk . . . .” If you plan to use real and/or famous people or their descendants in your creative work without their permission, you need to assess the risk of a claim being made against you. If the descendant characters in your story are doing and saying things that they do not really do or say, your risk goes up. If your characters are descendants of powerful people whose estates aggressively protect their publicity rights, your risk goes up. Ultimately, your defense will be whether the use of the characters is artistically relevant to your story and not misleading as to endorsement of your work.

  • B.c.hatch says:

    I’m writing a children’s book that we’ve decided to use illustrators of past and present women that are historically relevant- I wanted to be sure doing so (which it seems if I’m understanding the above article is allowed)

    • As I mentioned in response to an earlier comment, the better question is not whether you are allowed, it is what kind of risk are you facing. Just to clarify, in a children’s book you are writing, you want to use illustrations of woman, past and present, who are historically relevant. If you are the artist (or have hired an artist) creating original illustrations and your book is essentially historically accurate, you will have little to no risk. The illustrations are artistically relevant to the stories you are telling and a collection of biographies of women we all ought to know about does not seem to suggest that any one of them endorses your work. I look forward to hearing more about it, especially which women you are including.

  • Mark says:

    This is great info! If I put a picture of a cherry tree on a t-shirt and the text “George told the truth” then I would be infringing on George Washington’s right of publicity? What if I put a cherry tree and put the text “Guess who told the truth?” Is there any way to allude to the person without violating their publicity rights? Thanks! 😃

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Well . . . I’m not sure if George has rights of publicity anymore. But if he did, and you are using his image to sell shirts, I think that would be a violation of his rights.

  • brad weston says:

    My name is brad weston, I’m an indie filmmaker and curious how to include famous people in the plot of some my scripts that I will sell as movies one day – I need some advice – also I am thinking of doing a podcast and would love you to interview and answer few questions – my site is at – you can contact me at

    • The rules for using famous people in films are essentially the same as using celebs in fiction. If the film is based on a biography, you will need to option the book. If the film is based on someone’s life story, you will need to secure those rights.

  • Kris says:

    I currently am almost done with a screen play about a famous singer, although it’s a “what if” type story. Fantasy, so it’s fiction. I have thought about changing names completely, but the story would be reminiscent still of that famous person. I am at a loss of what to do.

  • Erin Burdette says:

    Hi, thank you for this helpful article! I am writing a novel that takes place in 1996-97 Los Angeles and is loosely autobiographical in terms of setup: I was a (completely unknown, part of the problem!) actress in LA for several years and had a romantic relationship that ultimately imploded in part bc of different career choices, etc. HOWEVER, the actual events and plot are totally fictionalized (by changing names, places, what happened, lots of details, etc., adding a pregnancy that never happened as one example). That said, the actress Victoria Principal shows up as herself in conjunction with true events—she was a cochair for the LA County Domestic Violence Council in 1997–and the main character’s boyfriend (a character who has been fictionalized) directed a PSA for Victoria Principal’s non-profit, and this happened in real life. FICTIONALIZED in the book, the protagonist meets Victoria Principal (since her boyfriend is working with VP and this is his first “big break”), gets advice from VP, goes to a party at VP’s house, etc. This is all TOTALLY FICTIONAL–never met VP. It should also be said that Victoria Principal appears in a way that is totally innocuous and actually flattering— she was a co-chair for a non-profit against domestic violence, so she’s probably a good person?:). It makes sense in the context of the book and adds humor and camp for her to appear–a lot of actors, writers, etc. are mentioned to make the world of theater and Hollywood come alive. I keep thinking of how Woody Allen fictionalized Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris” or Nicolas Cage in “Adaptation” and it’s kind of like that–blown up to make a point of how the line between real and imagined is thin (not that I am comparing my writing to that of Woody Allen and/or Charlie Kaufman. If only!). Anyway-What do you think?

  • Jenny says:

    Thank you for your informative article. I am interested in writing a script about a political family from history. There have been documentaries and books, a few movies even, but nothing as extensive as I’d like to explore as a film or series that would be accessible to a wider audience. Perhaps the legalities have made something like this prohibitive and this is why it has not been done. All of these people are long gone. Is this something that would be too difficult and tricky for me to pursue?

  • Bourneblogger says:

    I want to write a fiction book about a real, famous, French-Impressionist artist that takes place in the afterlife. No images of his work will be shown, and this story could be written such that it doesn’t reference even one piece of his famed work. The only reference to him that would be used is his name, but he would be speaking fictitiously in the afterlife to the main character of the story. What is your advice on this matter?

  • Thank you for this helpful information! I read the responses below and still have a question. In the book I’m writing I have stories of overcoming childhood trauma using 4 famous people as short examples to illustrate the point. Is this allowed?

    • Danielle,

      You need to get a legal clearance opinion for each of the four individuals. You may end up needing to get their permission to use them as examples in your book. There’s no way to analyze the question without more detail. Privacy rights, publicity rights, and defamation could all be in play especially when talking about childhood.


      • Wow, I’m so glad a friend of mine gave me your site. I had no idea. Thank you SO much!

        I got all the information about them online from interviews and and rewrote it thinking I was doing the correct copyright thing instead of copy/paste with reference cited. Is the latter legal because that information is already published online?

        If I wanted to seek their permission, how do I go about doing that?

  • Paul says:

    Hi Kathryn, very informative piece, thanks! After reading a few of your responses below, I have a feeling that I may be in for some revisions, but, I will ask anyway for clarification. The screenplay I’m writing takes place in the early 60s and the history and pop culture of that era are central to the work. Occasionally, I insert an image of a black and white tv screen in which the channels are being changed. As the channels are being changed, various brief clips (2-3 sec) appear of 60s tv commercials, news casts, clips from movies, etc. In the script, I document in detail the YouTube source and segment to be used. What gives me slight hope is that, as a creative piece, a piece not using the clips to promote sales, but solely as part of the artistic intent, that I might slip by? Thanks.

    • Paul,

      In a fair use analysis, one of the factors considered is the amount of the work being taken. You’re taking 2-3 seconds of much larger pieces. If those few seconds are not the “heart and soul” of the piece, this factor would weigh in favor of fair use. Check out the post on Fair Use: Using the Creative Work of Others, the example of 300 words taken from Gerald Ford’s much longer book.

      An earlier commenter on this post wants to use photographs and images in their entirety in his film. That’s different from what you’re planning. This is not a clearance opinion, just a back of the envelope look at one factor.

      My other thought is why are you using the old TV shows/commercials at all? Is it integral to your creative story line, or do you just want to make it easy on yourself by not creating a segment that looks 60s-like TV? When using the work of others, you must be able to articulate the reason for the creative process.

      Also, giving credit is nice, but not a substitute for a fair use analysis or a defense to infringement.


  • Andrew says:

    Very helpful article, thanks for this Kathryn. I had a quick question, I’m writing a film where a character is obsessed with pop culture, so celebrity names come up regularly. But I also wanted posters, props, and images of celebrities to be in the room of the character – is this copyright infringement , as every photo/image in the room need to be cleared? Her obsession with pop culture is extremely relevant to her character arc. So I’m not sure how to get around this… Any help would be very much appreciated!

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      You very well could have copyright issues with the images that might be used to decorate the set. The posters and photographs were created by artists who have rights in them. By putting them in a film, you are copying them. A fair use analysis would have to be done. If it’s not fair use, you’ll need permission.

      • Andrew says:

        Thank you for quick response, Kathryn!

  • clark says:

    Here’s a more contemporary expression of my original query which referred to TR’s charge (a week or so ago). The story that Alice Cooper (Vinny Furnier) bit the head off a live chicken during a live performance will never die, even though it’s untrue. But it’s become iconic – some people might even consider it true even now – and it will always be associated with him in popular culture. I’m asking whether I risk liability using an altered version of this BS story as a device in my novel: he bites the head off a different small creature; a bandmate does it instead; Cooper bitten instead of doing the biting – but nothing damaging (like biting the head off a kitten). The reader, hopefully, would realize my version is altered when it doesn’t go where expected, setting her up for whatever comes next.

  • Bryan Kile says:

    Very helpful information. RAises the question for me about using places such as real store names where an event (good or bad) happens?

    • If the event that happens in the real store is fictional, you are better off creating a fictional store. Giving agency in your story to entities that exist in the real world comes with a certain amount of risk that you may not be interested in entertaining. Besides, you’re a creative writer, right? Write something creative.

  • Jim Adameit says:

    Hello Kathryn, as usual – terrific information… thanks very much!

    I read (actually listened to) an e-book by Shane Kuhn called ‘The Intern’s Handbook’ (a very entertaining first-person novel about a hitman posing as an intern in a business setting). In his story, Kuhn used the law firm name of Bendini, Lambert and Locke – which was taken directly from John Grisham’s novel, ‘The Firm’. When I heard it in Kuhn’s book, I remembered Grisham’s fictional law firm instantly. I assume this is why he was able to use that law firm name without fear of repercussion. It surely added an air of recollection and flavor. I’ve done similar things with my novel in process (ie, song titles, etc.) and will be speaking with you about it one of these days, after I finally get my manuscript completed.

    Regards, Jim

    • Jim,
      Protecting fictional trademarks is an interesting issue. The creators of The Simpsons have gone to great lengths to protect Duff Beer, a fictional brew, from being used by real brewers. It’s not really a trademark because 20th Century Fox wasn’t really selling Duff beer (although now they are) and copyright doesn’t protect words or short phrases. Nevertheless, Fox has been able to protect its fictional trademark.

      Thanks for the comment. Kathryn

  • April says:

    Your articles are always helpful. I’ve started painting a series to musicians in performance. My source material are photos I took at a concert. The venue allowed cellular phone images. The artists did not have signs on stage saying no photography, which I have seen at some concerts. In one I depict two of the musicians & have their drum which names the group. The painting is simply titled “Letting Loose” with no reference to the group specifically. All the paintings reflect high energy moments in their show. Is this fair use?

    • Here’s an example of how the law works: The University of Alabama controls the publicity rights of its staff and football players. It sued Daniel Moore for painting certain individuals and using its trademarks. The right to publicity is the equivalent of an individual’s trademark. The Court decided in favor of the artist saying that artistic expression is entitled to full First Amendment protection. Google up Daniel Moore and take a look at his work. So, you need to be able to articulate your artistic expression and relevance to the Neville brother you plan to paint. You can’t just trade on his name. And BONUS! You are painting from your photographs, so no copyright issue.

  • One of my students wanted to use a picture of a singer as the basis for a fabric portrait . Is this a transformative use?

    • Valerie,

      Just changing the medium of a creative work from a photo to a fabric portrait is not transformative. There has to be something new added, an individual creative aspect. Take a look at the Green Day example in this post: Is it Fair Use? Using the Creative Work of Others. The image conveyed new information, aesthetics, insights, and understandings distinct from the original piece and was transformative.

  • Foto70 says:

    “Slightly out of focus picture of yours truly with Cory Doctorow…”

    The photograph looks more blurred vs. out-of-focus.

    Blurred photographs tend to occur when using a slow camera shutter speed and/or when the camera phone operator inadvertently shakes the phone during the low ambient light level exposure and/or inadvertently taps the screen (triggering the exposure) with excessive force that causes the camera phone to shake.

    Aside from the technical hiccup, it’s still a nice souvenir photograph.

    • I’ll have to send my husband to cell phone picture taking classes. We’ll see if he gets any better at it.

  • clark says:

    Many thanks for your helpful insights, Ms. Goldman, especially the most recent. Along those lines, would it be okay to present Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders’ charge up Mount Orizaba on Santa Catalina Island – not San Jaun Hill – as the accepted version of a common yarn within the context of a novel’s modified reality?

    • I’m not sure I understand what you mean by

      the accepted version of a common yarn within the context of a novel’s modified reality.

      Are you rewriting history? Creating a what if scenario?

      Regardless, I don’t think you have to worry about the publicity rights of a famous individual who took part in an event over 100 years ago.

  • LaRee Bryant says:

    I’d be interested in knowing how the author included song lyrics in “Ready Player One” without getting permission. Is there a way around paying for
    their use (which is what I’ve come across).

    • LaRee,

      As you are probably aware, using song lyrics in fiction is a fraught area. There is a strong argument to be made that songs lyrics in fiction is transformative and therefore fair use. I have found one scholarly article on the subject that argues authors should be permitted to use lyrics in their work: Fair Use & The Quotation of Song Lyrics in Fiction by Stephen B. Harrison. He concludes that it will take a brave and well funded author to challenge the current practice of licensing lyrics for literary use. The music publishing industry has convinced everybody that a license is needed.

      I only found two instances of lyrics being quoted in Ready Player One. My guess is that they were licensed.


  • Marks Nester says:

    Thanks again for another interesting post.

    I just published a Western which describes what could have happened if two females were the best in the West. Most of the story is written as a series of episodes, and several episodes involve Hollywood epics or characters. At the end of my book I explicitly list all of the allusions which I deliberately made in the book, and these weren’t just to famous actors or movies.

    I always modified Hollywood character or actor names, and almost always only slightly. The point being that the story also stands as a challenge to interested readers to guess all of the 200+ allusions.

    Here are some of the things I did/wrote:
    1. Used famous quotes, e.g. “I’ll be back”.
    2. Used song names but never any words from the songs.
    3. My characters spent an evening with Benny, Little Joey and Horsie Cartwheel. (Bonanza)
    4. My characters met up with a cattle drive: “we call him Pearly Gates … . His real name is Flint Fleetwood”. (Rawhide)
    5. My characters had an encounter with “Brinner the Grinner” of the “Sinister Seven”. (For Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven).
    6. “Corporal Blanders … cooked using my seven secret seeds and spices … packed some of the awful looking food into a special purpose-built bucket for them, and handed it over …”. (Parody)

    I would welcome any initial thoughts you have about the above.

    • The famous people you are asking about are Clint Eastwood in his role in Rawhide and Yul Brynner in his role in The Magnificent Seven. Your question is less about using famous personas in your story than it is about using, or alluding to, the creative work of others, in this case the characters. That’s going to call for a fair use analysis. Take a look at this post: Using the Creative Work of Others and see how your use of those characters measures with respect to transformative use.

      Also, see my response to the question about song lyrics. I think you’re in good shape just using song names and not lyrics. I don’t see a problem with the quote, either.

      • Marks Nester says:

        Thanks. I believe my use has been transformative, but it seems that if it ever went to court then fickleness might have a bearing on the outcome.

  • Debbie says:

    Hi Kathryn, thanks for the helpful information. So, from my understanding, it is okay to use a famous singer’s name as the singer of their song in my story, is that correct? For instance, I have that the man was driving in his car listening to a song by the singer’s name. Am I allowed to do that? Thanks in advance for your response.

    • Debbie,

      Yes. It is fair game to say that a character in your story is listening to [famous singer] singing [popular song] on the radio, or whatever. There’s no problem with that. It’s the lyrics themselves that are problematic.


      • Ray Harlan says:

        Similar question. At the end of my novel, Scorpio’s Fire, the main character is despondent because his wife has left (after a 250 page struggle). His buddy tries to cheer him up. “Let’s put on the Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.'” After some dialogue, the lyrics come on and the characters sing along: “To everything/ Umm, hmm, hmm/ There is a season/ Umm, hmm, hmm/ ” etc. At the end, in small print is this attribution (Ecclesiastes 3:1,8, NKJV). I believe I can safely do this because the only actual lyrics that I quote are lines that the Byrds lifted word for word from the Bible. Would you agree. Ray

        • I would love to agree with you. Do you think there’s any original creativity in the “Umm, hmm, hmm”? I don’t, but I can tell you that there are those who would argue it. Woe be unto them that do.

          • Ray says:

            “Original creativity” is not really at issue. I agree that “Ummm, hmmm, hmmm” is NOT deathless prose. But using that phrase removes the only original Byrds’ lyrics in the song. Since every other word they use is derivative and has been in the public domain for 3,000 years or so, I think I am safe. Am I missing something?

          • I think you understand the analysis and are not missing anything.

  • Very informative. Appreciate your excellent posts. Important information that generally is not considered until a legal issue arises. Thanks for sharing.

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