How to Legally Use a Famous Icon (like the Hollywood sign) in Your Album Artwork or Music Video

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[HELPFULAW FOR THE INDIE ARTIST is a new advice column on legal matters pertaining to the music industry.  If you have a question for the author, attorney and indie artist Christiane Cargill Kinney, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below or send them to her at Christiane.Kinney@leclairryan.com.  You can also visit her firm’s website at www.leclairryan.com.]

Q:  My band is getting ready to do a photo shoot for our next album cover, and we want to photograph the Hollywood sign in the background.  Is there anything we need to be worried about, or are we free to film or photograph the sign or any other famous icon since it’s out in the open?

A:  Come on everybody, sing it with me: “Hooray for …” (if you don’t know the end of that sentence, you’re probably too young to be reading this Blog, but I still love you).

First erected in 1923 as a 50-foot billboard for a real estate development known as “Hollywoodland,” this famous icon has been featured in just about every medium imaginable, including films, music videos, and tattoos on the buttocks of wanna-be Hollywood rockers (don’t ask me how I know this).  It has become a symbol of the land where dreams are made, hopes horribly crushed, and untalented people get reality shows.  The Hollywood sign also requires a number of hoops that one must jump through in order to legally use its image and likeness for a “commercial purpose.”

Now, before any of you get too comfortable with the idea that this topic does not apply to you, I invite you to read on, and to consider that any time you want to photograph or film a famous icon for a commercial purpose, due diligence will be required.

To begin, it might be useful to explain what a “commercial purpose” is under the law.  Generally speaking, a “commercial purpose” means that you are using an image or likeness to advertise or promote goods or services, or by placing that image or likeness directly on products or services you intend to sell to the public.  If you’re an amateur shutterbug and will be taking photographs or video of the Hollywood sign for personal use only, no permission is generally required.  However, in the case of an album cover, the intended usage would be considered a “commercial purpose” (at least, one would hope).

So, what hoops must you jump through to legally film the Hollywood sign?  Let’s start with step one: getting the necessary permits.  In the City and County of Los Angeles (including Hollywood), you need a permit before doing any outdoor commercial filming or still photography.  To obtain a permit, contact FilmLA (www.filmla.com). Now, there are some major differences in pricing for a still photography permit vs. a full filming permit, though the online application process is the same.  Presently, the standard permit fee for still photography in the County of Los Angeles (assuming 15 people or less will be present) is $60.00.  This permit also covers up to ten locations for fourteen consecutive days.  Contrast that with a full filming permit (required for say a music video, or a photoshoot with more than 15 people present), which starts at $625.00 for one location, plus an additional $85.00 review fee by the fire department.  Other cities and counties have their own rates and requirements.  Proof of insurance is also generally required before obtaining a permit.  However, mandatory insurance coverage limits are activity-based, so you should consult with FilmLA regarding your particular filming plans before purchasing insurance.

So, that’s it, right?  Most people would probably think so.  In fact, one of my past clients had this happen to him.  He filmed a short student film while in college, which happened to include a shot of the Hollywood Sign in the background.  Being a student, his filming permits were free, and he didn’t think twice about it.  Flash forward almost a year later, where he was screening his film at a festival and was suddenly contacted and asked to produce evidence of his permission to use the sign in his movie.  Suddenly, he’s doing a legal tango to avoid having to pull his film out of the festival circuit.  He had his filming permit – so, what happened?

Well, that brings us to step two: getting a license to film the Hollywood sign.  Wa … huh?  Let me explain.  The Hollywood Sign (like other famous landmarks) is protected under trademark law.  Generally speaking, a trademark is a word, symbol, or phrase used to identify a particular product and distinguish it from the products of another.  The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce owns various rights in and to the Hollywood Stylized Mark (e.g., the Hollywood Sign), including certain trademark rights for usage of the sign or its likeness for a “commercial purpose” (remember that key catch phrase?)  For this reason, even the use of stock footage of the Hollywood sign may require further licensing fees through the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.  (As a side note, the Hollywood Chamber also owns similar trademark rights to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well as the exclusive rights for anyone who wants to pet Peter Lorre’s bones.  Just making sure you are still paying attention).  A company called Global Icons (www.globalicons.com) administers and enforces all licenses relating to the sign, negotiates all fees/permissions on a case by case basis, and protects the Chamber’s proprietary rights in the sign.

So, that’s it?  Let me give you a common legal answer: maybe.  Depending on your particular situation, there may be a third step involved:  If you need access into Griffith Park in order to achieve your perfect shot of the sign, entry to the grounds, or to other City of Los Angeles Parks where you may wish to film, requires prior approval by the Park Film Office.  (http://www.laparks.org/dos/ranger/parkfilm.htm).

These companies will let you know of other important filming restrictions related to the sign.  For example, filming is generally restricted to daylight hours, certain areas are off limits, and there are physical restrictions such as no construction, alteration or physical changes or lighting of the Hollywood Sign or its surrounding area (I know, I know … New Year’s Eve 2000.  I guess they learned their lesson).

So, let me do a quick recap for you, in case you fell asleep (and if you did, make sure to go back and read the Peter Lorre joke; it’s a good one).  Step 1: Call FilmLA to get the necessary permit (and be ready to show proof of insurance once you determine the mandatory coverage limits for your shoot).  Step 2: Contact Global Icons to negotiate a license fee for usage.  Let them know you are an independent artist.  They don’t have a set license fee, and will generally take budget and other factors into consideration in coming up with a fair rate.  Step 3: If you need access into the Park to get the perfect shot, make arrangements beforehand with the Park Film Office.  Step 4:  Follow steps 1-3 meticulously, or heads are gonna roll! (Too soon?)

Hope this helps, and happy filming!

I feel like some fine print, how about you?

© 2012 Christiane Cargill Kinney.  All rights reserved.  This Blog contains information of a general nature that is not intended to be legal advice and should not be considered or relied on as legal advice.  Any reader of this Blog who has legal matters involving information addressed in this Blog should consult with an experienced entertainment attorney.  This Blog does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader of this Blog. This Blog contains no warranties or representations that the information contained herein is true or accurate in all respects or that it is the most current or complete information on the subject matter covered. Christiane Cargill Kinney is a Partner and Chair of the Entertainment Industry Team of LeClairRyan, LLP.

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  • There are so many things that are so wrong about that.

  • Jeremy Hannon

    So, what about national landmarks. Say, for example a natural landmark in Yosemite National Park. Could I use Half Dome or El Capitan without any additional issues?

  • Karynl11

    Hi Christine, I thought I posted this question, but I guess it failed on the ipad.

    How would you handle it, if you had taken photos for non-commercial use, and then later had an opportunity to use it commercially. Would you have to go through the formalities anyway, even though the photos had already been taken, or could you skip that, and move on to the licensing stage?
    Thanks!

  • Leoechea

    thanks Christiane!!

  • Bill

    If you have a permit and are filming from a public place, and the hollywood sign happens to be incidental in the background, and the content of the video is not defaming or creating an implied endorsement by hollywood, I seriously doubt they would have any actionable grounds… but that just my opinion

    • Thanks for your comment Bill, and for reading.

      I’m not saying that there would be no legal defenses available under trademark law, but my intention in this legal blog is to help people avoid potential missteps in the first place so they aren’t in the position of having to defend themselves after the fact, or having to respond to a heavy-handed cease and desist letter.

      Some of you who were left flabbergasted by the whole concept of someone trademarking something that is so in the public eye (cough cough Michael) may find this article on the subject particularly interesting: Back in 1990, the LA Times wrote an article about a settlement between the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and a souvenir maker that contested the chamber’s right to the trademarks for the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame and the potential millions of dollars earned from marketing it. (http://articles.latimes.com/1990-07-12/news/we-90_1_hollywood-chamber-of-commerce)

      Of course, because the case settled out of court, there was no final ruling on the matter. Take it with a grain of salt people; I’m just the messenger!

      ~Christiane 😉

  • Thanks for the comment Karyn!

    As for your question about photos initially taken for non-commercial use with a potential commercial opportunity for use after the fact, it's really going to depend on the precise situation at hand, e.g., the initial purpose of the photoshoot, the surrounding scene, the commercial usage involved, the geographic location and applicable film permit regulations for that area, etc. as to whether you're going to want to go back and re-shoot with the necessary filming permits, or whether you can potentially skip that step after the fact. I can tell you that FilmLA does not retroactively issue filming permits, and most film permit regulations are based upon an intention or purpose at the time of filming, so you would have good arguments in favor of being able to use the photos after the fact. Nonetheless, without knowing all the details, I couldn't give you a black and white answer. Film permitting regulations also have certain exemptions that may apply in a particular situation; for example, news media may routinely film or photograph events concerning persons, scenes or occurrences which are in the news and of general public interest.

    All these little permeations of the law are what we attorneys deal with all day long … if there was an easy answer, there probably wouldn't be so many attorneys in this world! 😉 My goal here is simply to help the readers gain a better understanding of some of the laws that may arise in their day-to-day lives as musicians, and to help give a little advice and guidance along the way. Cheers, and thanks for reading!

    ~Christiane

    • Karyn Lowe

      Thanks, Chris…at least I have a better understanding of who to contact, should the issue come up. Pretty soon everyone will be a blogger or a iphone photographer, and I am sure these waters are going to get very muddy!

  • Marsiano Elda-Ferrari

    Interesting article.
    What about soundscapes? Let’s say that I want to record a live busking session at a famous landmark and I want to write the story on my CD booklet in order to add some context to the recording. Do I have to ask for a permission in order to do it? If I write that I played that particular session in some street in Paris or Milan, or inside some building, or next to railstation, should I ask for a permission too?
    Thanks.

  • Great question Marsiano, and I'm going to say no, you don't need permission to describe a famous landmark in text in your CD booklet. But, the ins and outs of WHY you don't have to ask permission for that may be an interesting subject for the next article …. thanks for reading & posting (and perhaps inspiring the next legal topic of discussion)! Stay tuned! 🙂 ~c

  • Sorry for the delay Jeremy, I missed this one! An easy rule of thumb to help guide you would be distinguishing between manmade vs. natural landmarks. As a very general explanation, trademarks protect words, names, designs, or slogans … in the case of a natural landmark, it falls outside the scope of these things. Because it's natural, and not man-made, there is no one who can really claim trademark ownership over these things. The thing to take away from this article is this: there are things that don't always seem obvious that may have legal implications for your music/albums, so due diligence is always a good rule of thumb!

    Cheers, and thanks for reading! ~Christiane

  • David

    It’s actually kind of amazing that they were able to trademark that sign at all. It’s not selling anything, other than itself and there’s no larger product attached to it, other than the city itself. Only in America would one have to pay a license fee for the commercial use of letters from the alphabet, which is essentially what this is.

  • I’m making an indie film but I’ll adapt my question for this audience: Could I use a movie poster (let’s say The Breakfast Club) or an album cover (let’s say Duran Duran) in a music video? These would be things on some kid’s dorm wall in the video. Or what is involved clearance-wise for that? Thanks!

    • Jack Marchetti

      I’m currently clearing a bunch of artwork for a short film. You need to first figure out who holds the copyright to the album artwork. It’s sometimes the label, but sometimes the illustrator. It’s usually not the band. Check out Allmusic.com or even Wikipedia for that info. Secondly, figure out what label put out the album then find the parent company and contact their licensing department. For Duran Duran’s “Rio”, it was put out by EMI/Capitol. Capitol is owned by Universal. You would need to obtain permission from them, if they hold the copyright to the album cover. Keep in mind some companies charge more than others. For instance Warner Bros charges $500 per album.

  • brucenahin

    Prof Tog the short answer is definitely not..you need permission for each poster, cover etc check out my blog where last week we discussed this topic too..https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bruce-Nahin/168729819891467

  • What about a drawn image that only includes a corner of the sign? For a comic book.