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Obama Fried Chicken: Taste Aside, Is it Legal to Use the President's Name?

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By Caleb Groos on April 03, 2009 6:28 PM

Multiple New York eateries have drawn criticism for changing their names to "Obama Fried Chicken." Aside from questions about what such a name can be read to imply, this move begs the question: can the President's name be used on businesses or products?

As the New York Daily News reports, fast food joints in Manhattan and Brooklyn have taken the name Obama Fried Chicken. One used to go by S&T Fried Chicken, and the other Royal Fried Chicken.

Why? According to the Brooklyn restaurant's manager, "[b]asically, the owner loves Obama. He loves him seriously. He supports him." Or there's also the potential to cash in on the new President's popularity.

The name changes have drawn foreseeable outrage by some angered at the racial overtones of coupling our first black President with fried chicken. Putting aside questions of race and taste, what are the rules for use of a President's name?

US trademark law does not require permission by the President to use his name (outside the theoretical scenario in which Obama has his own trademarks that would be infringed). The Trademark Office won't, however, let you register a trademark incorporating a President's name or image without written permission while either that President or their spouse is alive.

There are instances when the feds will swoop in. Just ask the former brewers of "Hop Obama" ale or "Obamagang" Belgian brown ale. As the Chicago Craft Beer Examiner noted, the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau shut down their use the Obama name. This, however, was under laws regulating alcohol label approval, not under trademark law.

Many states have laws protecting what is called the "right of publicity," so that people can prevent the unauthorized use of their name or likeness to sell products or services. These are what most celebrities use to squash the unwanted use of their name or likeness.

However, when the person is a politician, First Amendment rights to talk about, criticize and make fun of our leaders can come into play. Added to this is the fact that most sitting politicians do not attempt to stamp out uses of their name.

Time will tell whether Arnold Schwarzenegger bodes as a shift in this trend. Since coming into office he has aggressively gone after uses of his likeness, including on bobble-heads and greeting cards. His embodiment of the celebrity politician could eventually force a more clear answer to what happens when the right of publicity runs into the First Amendment.

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