Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Spirit #5, Action #6, and the True Story of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Lew Alicindor was a famous basketball player who was the best player in the NCAA when he played for UCLA in the late 1960s. In 1971, after playing a few years in the NBA, Mr. Alcindor legally changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (he had used the name informally for several years before then.) Alcindor/ Adbul-Jabbar had a long and successful professional basketball career, primarily with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Fast-forward to 1993. Abdul-Jabbar's career is over. General Motors uses the name "Lew Alcindor" is an advertisement an Oldsmobile that airs during the NBA finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sues, saying that GM does not have the right to use his name in a commercial without his consent. GM responds that they didn't use his name. They used a name that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar intentionally abandoned back in 1971. It was not "his name" any more, and therefore he did not have any rights to it.

The answer -- to me at least -- is not obvious. Of course a person has a right to protect his name. And of course a person has a right to change his name. On the one hand, Lew Alcindor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the "same person," and a statement like "Lew Alcindor loves General Motors" would lead a normal person to believe that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had similar sentiments. On the other hand, there was a deliberate renunciation of the name. If something is abandoned, then its free for anyone else walking along the roadside to pick up and keep.

This case was in the back of my mind as I read The Spirit, along with Action Comics #6, in which Superman makes a similar discovery that his identity had co-opted by a con-man. In Action #6, the con-men quickly move from financial fraud to attempted murder, which makes the case a little easier than the Lew Alcindor case. In Spirit #5, the con-man make the dubious claim that the Spirit can't do anything to him because the Spirit has no legal rights to his own name.

In any event, a few things that floated through my mind as I read yet another excellent issue of The Spirit.

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