Is it legal to reference a real city in your game and use the same architecture of well known shops and buildings?

For example, I'm sure you can't create an exact 3D model of McDonalds, put it in your game, and sell it. However, is it possible to use the same architecture, but different name? and even use the same colors, just as long as the name and logos are not used? Or would there be the possibility of getting in trouble for creating something in the "likeness".

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ 1. Talk to a lawyer. 2. Use all your own art or correctly licensed art. 3. Talk to a lawyer. Related/duplicate: gamedev.stackexchange.com/questions/11384/… \$\endgroup\$
    – House
    Mar 11, 2013 at 19:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe the answer could perhaps be different depending on whether this is about including a likeness of a building or about a likeness of a brand. IANAL though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lie Ryan
    Mar 12, 2013 at 1:21
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ You forgot 4. Talk to a lawyer. \$\endgroup\$
    – ashes999
    Mar 12, 2013 at 15:36

3 Answers 3


First, a disclaimer: I'm a lawyer who practices in California, but this post is not intended as legal advice. "Is it legal" questions are inherently not a good idea for the stack exchange format. Different jurisdictions have different laws, and in many jurisdictions, offering legal advice absent a license constitutes unauthorized practice of law (i.e., it's a crime). Moreover, you should not rely on advice you find online to determine whether some conduct is legal or illegal. Finally, circumstances vary. Whether your use of architecture is lawful or unlawful may depend on specifics that are not provided by your question.

So the real answer is: consult with a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction.

Having said that, by way of background, I can tell you that there have been lawsuits related to allegedly unauthorized uses. My favorite example is E.S.S. Entertainment 20002, Inc. v. Rockstar Videos, Inc., et al., 547 F.3d 1095 (9th Cir. 2008), which involved Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and the allegation that the game infringed on an actual strip club:

ESS Entertainment 2000, Inc. ("ESS"), operates a strip club, which features females dancing nude, on the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles under the name Play Pen Gentlemen's Club ("Play Pen"). ESS claims that Rockstar's depiction of an East Los Santos strip club called the Pig Pen infringes its trademark and trade dress associated with the Play Pen.

The PigPen in GrandTheftAuto

Rockstar prevailed in that lawsuit on first amendment and fair use grounds, but that does not mean you would, nor does it mean that the matter was cheap or trivial for Rockstar to defend.

If you're considering using a real building or, for example, parodying it by tweaking the name PlayPen to PigPen, you may someday find yourself answering questions at a deposition like this:

"Q Okay. Did anything humorous about pigs in any way influence your artistic creation of the PIGPEN? A I can't remember. . . . Q As you sit here today can you think of anything funny about pigs that may have inspired or influenced your artistic rendition of the PIGPEN?"

  • \$\begingroup\$ Trade dress infringement being the important aspect to consider. \$\endgroup\$
    – House
    Mar 11, 2013 at 20:01

I think you basically have answered your own question by pointing out that you couldn't copy a McDonalds. That is, if the answer is "Yes" for a McDonalds, it is "Possibly" for other buildings.

Unless I suppose you are modelling old or historical landmarks (Ancient Rome, The Alamo, Brandenburg Gate, etc.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 It does indeed vary from building to building. And the most well known buildings are historical landmarks. \$\endgroup\$
    – House
    Mar 11, 2013 at 20:11

Provided they're both publicly owned and reasonably old, I can't see a reason not to. If for example, you copy the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel tower or something, I don't know who's going to sue you.

On the other hand, I would probably steer clear of Apple, Inc. latest HQ :)


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