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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