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.

  • 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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