If I am creating a board-game type game, does anyone know if it is legal to use others' names in the game?

ie. A playing card with "George Bush" or "Michael Jackson" on it.

Also, is it the same for brand names?

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    \$\begingroup\$ In which country are you? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 26, 2010 at 22:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1, this is not the legal advice stack exchange, nor is this question game specific. \$\endgroup\$
    – user744
    Oct 27, 2010 at 11:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joe Wreschnig - It is an important consideration when designing a game, which to me makes it game development specific question, even though no one here will be qualified to give a professional legal answer. At the very least it raises the importance and potential implications of using names in a game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Allan
    Oct 27, 2010 at 23:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Joe, they are simply helping give a starting point. Instead of bashing those who are asking questions or helping me find a starting place, you can simply leave a -1 vote and move on. \$\endgroup\$
    – Andrew M
    Nov 1, 2010 at 22:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joe: what are you talking about lol? legal questions are not OT here. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Sep 8, 2011 at 7:33

3 Answers 3


I would say no, unless you have been given permission. For example, think of sports games that do not own the rights to the league they are covering. They end up resorting to using similar, but different names to their real life counterparts.

I found this discussion about using sports peoples names in websites: It is a copyright violation to use cricket or football players' name in a website?.

It seems a name itself can not be copyright (so you can use their name in a news article for instance), however if you are benefiting from using their name/image then it is a violation of publicity rights.

See also:

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ultimately you would need to talk to a lawyer to get a 100% correct answer. From what I can tell, as long as you only use a name in a statistics/news kinda way (so fantasy team comps, trivial pursuit) then you should be safe -although that's not to say someone might not try to sue you cbsnews.com/stories/2006/08/07/eveningnews/main1872987.shtml and news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-10256918-93.html are some cases. Certainly seems a grey area. I think if it is a commercial program then the chances of getting sued increases greatly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Allan
    Oct 27, 2010 at 1:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ ...continued. So if a card game asked something like "Who was the president of the United States during 2002" and the card had an answer of "George Bush" then that is fine because that knowledge is in the public domain. But if you created a game where you play as the character George Bush then you could get yourself into trouble whether the game was free or not. \$\endgroup\$
    – Allan
    Oct 27, 2010 at 1:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Alla - IIRC (though IANAL), political figures cannot claim rights to their likeness used for commercial purposes, so long as those purposes do not entail libel \$\endgroup\$
    – warren
    Oct 27, 2010 at 3:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @warren - it seems to depend (IANAL either). After doing more research into it, it seem parodies are fine in the US (which is why South Park is not sued), however there is a fine line between a individual’s publicity rights with the First Amendment. Depending on the usage, political figures can claim rights to their likeness being used for commercial purposes. Two good articles I came across are dev-warhol.matmarquis.com/content/privacy-and-publicity-basics and citmedialaw.org/legal-guide/using-name-or-likeness-another \$\endgroup\$
    – Allan
    Oct 27, 2010 at 4:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would say as long as it is up to the user, that is, they are free to decide, then I see no problem with that. However, if it was worded to imply something, and what you were implying was considered defamatory, then you could get in trouble for that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Allan
    Oct 27, 2010 at 23:31

I think with celebrities you would be fine(as long as its not slander). It would be safer to use names that are close, if you are using them as a character in a game. But for board games you should be alright.

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 I'm sorry, nothing personal, but... this is wrong on so many levels. You shouldn't give carelessly legal advice, especially if it is utterly and completely made up out of nowhere (and completely wrong) like this one. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Sep 13, 2011 at 19:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ There recently was a court case where Lindsay Lohan sued Rockstar Games over Grand Theft Auto V. It had a character named Lacey Jonas, and she sued because she deemed it an attack on here in disguise. Might be interesting reading. I think her complaint was struck down in this case, but you probably can't afford to fight a big lawsuit like Rockstar Games can. \$\endgroup\$
    – uliwitness
    Oct 30, 2016 at 11:47

I am not a lawyer, I only have a working knowledge from releasing software and reading a lot about how copyright works and TV is made, but if you want a safe, short answer, then I'd say don't do it unless the person has been dead for 100 years or so, and make sure you portray them according to official sources and don't add anything negative that isn't backed by several other, reputable sources (like official biographies from themselves or their peers).

The long answer is that there are many factors that play into it:

Libel Laws

If you are painting a person in a negative light, or people understand you as alluding to negative occurrences in their career that haven't been proven in court, you could be sued for badmouthing them. (See the Lindsay Lohan vs. Rockstar Games lawsuit over GTA V for one way how this can end)

Personality Rights

Are you violating anyone's personality rights? In some countries, there is an expectation of privacy, so using someone else's name might draw them into the public, or parts of their life that are considered private (especially their young children fall into this category).

Public Interest

There is also the mitigating factor of "public interest" in many jurisdictions, where, if you are using someone's name in the news and disclosing new private facts, you may do so if the public's need to know these facts (e.g. because a crime has occurred) is bigger than the personality's right to privacy. (This is unlikely to be the case for a game usually, though)

Public Personalities' Rights

If a person is already in the public, things they have already publicly disclosed are usually fair game. E.g. Michael Jackson grew up giving interviews and talking about private things, so he was pretty much fair game for anything (though his image is still protected, see the story of PopCap and their "Thriller" zombies in Plants vs. Zombies for details), but since he put a blanket over the head of his kid whenever he showed him in public, he grew up mostly protected from press. OTOH had he not done that and other protective measures, it would have been easier for the press to follow the kid's life and report on it.


Is the personality still alive? Usually, if a person has been deceased long enough, their name and countenance are fair game. So it's fine to have George Washington or Jesus in your game.

However, since there are still organizations that identify with these people, you might want to be careful not to draw their ire (e.g. Monty Python's Life of Brian was famously advertised as "being so funny it was forbidden in Norway" because they considered it putting down Jesus and Christian religions).

There are also countries where certain institutions (like prime ministers, regents etc.) may not be portrayed disrespectfully because they represent the state (e.g. if you make fun of the queen of Great Britain, you might get in trouble there)


Parody exemptions. Many countries have them, none agree on what constitutes a parody. But if you're obviously using an exaggerated version of a personality to humorous effect, there are special protections. However, given how subjective humor is, again, if it's not backed by someone else's existing (and accepted as true) description of a personality, you can get in trouble easily.

Other Miscellaneous Laws

After WWII, for example, Germany enacted laws intended to make it harder to bring back a Nazi movement, which included bans on certain symbols used to represent political groups (mostly runes and the Swastika). I'd expect that if you made a game that painted Hitler in a positive light, you might run afoul of some of those laws and be classified like Nazi propaganda. So even painting someone solely in a positive light might be an issue when it implicitly paints someone else in a negative light (e.g denying the holocaust).


Even if you know you are legally right, can you afford to fight whoever would sue you over it in court? Depending on your country of jurisdiction, fighting a court battle is expensive. If you're a small indie games developer, even if you get awarded lawyer fees, you still spend every hour in court away from growing your business, processing support and sales, adding new features ... can you afford that? And do you have enough savings to live until the case is decided in a year or so and you actually get paid the awarded fees?

In Summary

I say "play into it" because, depending on where you are making this game (which can be legally complex if e.g. your graphic designer is in a different country) and where you are selling it (in case of online stores, that can be "everywhere that store can be called up and the payment form works", and also depends on where the company doing the selling resides, e.g. for Apple's store that would be California in the US), some of these laws may apply, and others may not.

But as always, when in doubt, get a lawyer and ask them.

Fun fact: TV shows and movies have a dedicated process for clearing character names. They actually make sure a name is very common or does not exist yet so that nobody who has the same name can come to them and and feel libeled.


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