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Naming, Identity, and Trademark Law

Laura A. Heymann

College of William & Mary - Marshall-Wythe School of Law

February 14, 2011

Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 86, No. 2, 2011
William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-74

As the process of creation in the age of digital media becomes more fluid, one pervasive theme has been the desire for attribution: from the creator’s perspective, to receive credit for what one does (and to have credit not falsely attributed) and from the audience’s perspective, to understand the source of material with which one engages. But our norms of attribution reflect some inconsistencies in defining the relationship among name, identity, and authenticity. A blog post by a writer identified only by a pseudonym may prove to be very influential in the court of public opinion, while the use of anonymous sources by established journalists may be viewed as unethical. Supreme Court jurisprudence both touts the benefits of anonymity and decries it as a barrier to the free flow of information. In the commercial realm, consumers file suit when the memoir they have purchased turns out to be largely fiction but seem far less concerned when a company emerges from a public relations disaster with a new name, leaving its old one to the dustbin of history.

This conflicted response may be further complicated by the fact that we think about names in a very personal way, as a core part of our identity. But names are not, strictly speaking, our identity - they are merely symbols of our identity that denote a particular set of characteristics at a particular time. Indeed, as naming theory tells us, the denotative function of a name is what makes a word a name at all. It is for this reason that an individual or a corporation can adopt a new name without being accused of fraud and why a company can sell products under more than one trademark.

Naming law - whether the law of personal names or the law of trademarks - tends to reflect these principles of naming theory. In large part, the law focuses on a name or mark’s denotative effect, interfering only when confusion or changes to the essential nature of the referent renders the name’s identifying function uncertain. And, indeed, in the instances when the law is inconsistent with naming theory - attempting to regulate the connotations associated with names rather than their denotative function - we might question whether it is achieving an appropriate goal. Confining naming law to this important but limited function achieves a balance between respecting the autonomy of individuals and entities to choose the names with which they represent themselves to the public and ensuring that such choices do not significantly frustrate the flow of information that allows the public to engage in decision making.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 67

Keywords: naming, trademark, onomastics, identity, dilution, name changes

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Date posted: February 17, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Heymann, Laura A., Naming, Identity, and Trademark Law (February 14, 2011). Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 86, No. 2, 2011; William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-74. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1761614

Contact Information

Laura A. Heymann (Contact Author)
College of William & Mary - Marshall-Wythe School of Law ( email )
613 South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
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