To inanity and beyond!

By Brand Heeler

We’re constantly being reminded by trendy types in black roll-necks that each of us is a personal brand – ‘Brand You!’ Some people clearly take this idea to extremes, witness a story which made us chuckle into our corn flakes this morning:

Buzz Lightyear is alive and well and living in the UK. Formerly known as Sam Stephens, Mr Lightyear has changed his name by deed poll to raise funds for a children’s cancer charity. Having already successfully raised thousands of pounds by getting a picture of [the other] Buzz Lightyear tattooed on his leg, he’s clearly not a man to be trifled with as the DVLA can attest – after holding out for 12 months, they have finally relented and issued Buzz with a driving licence in his new name.

Mr Lightyear says he checked with the DVLA before going ahead and was assured everything would be OK only to find out that it wasn’t that simple. ‘The official reason given by the DVLA was that because it was a fictional character it would bring the company into disrepute if I went abroad,’ he explained . ‘I said it wasn’t their decision, it is my name by deed poll – it is not up to them to accept or reject that.’ He’s got a point.

In their defence, the DVLA stated that ‘the driving licence is an important official document which is used both here and abroad. That is why we look for a range of evidence to support the application before we update our records.’ They’ve got a point, too.

Most of us are happy to get by with the name imposed on us by parents and family circumstances, but those opting for something new are faced with the same issues as when a business selects a new brand. What does the new name say about you? What qualities does it convey? Is there a risk of confusion with someone else? Not everyone will come up with the same answers or for the same reasons but, if it suits Buzz Lightyear to make a spectacle of himself call himself that, more power to him, provided he acts in an open and honest manner. If he tries to use his new name to mislead people e.g. by seeking to capitalise on Disney’s trade mark rights, he will likely fall foul of applicable laws but otherwise he’s well within his rights.

As a matter of UK and Australian law, anyone is free to adopt any name they like, providing it’s not done in the furtherance of fraud or other crime. Even though it would be a confusing – and potentially dangerous – world if people adopted and discarded names at a whim, there’s actually no legal principle preventing this. There are plenty of practical obstacles, for sure (such as our administrative friends who won’t just take your word for it) but it’s interesting how counter-intuitive it can seem that it is that easy.

Despite urban myth, a deed poll is not needed in the UK, nor are there any other formalities to follow. Other countries have different rules. The self-styled ‘UK Deed Poll Service’, a private company with no official links, helps people draw up suitable deeds poll (yup – that’s the plural!) and claims to have to comply with various rules such as:

–              names having to be pronounceable (sorry, Mr Ng)

–              names can’t be ‘vulgar or offensive’ (tell that to our beloved English teacher Mr Pratt)

–              names can’t ridicule third parties (take a bow, Mr Yorkshire Bank Plc Are Fascist Bastards – a genuine name-change!)

But these actually have nothing to do with the law – rather they seem to reflect an expectation of the kind of restrictions that apply to trade marks. For sure, not everywhere is as laissez-faire as the UK: in Sweden it would probably be illegal to call yourself Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 (even if that is intended to be pronounced ‘Albin’). Italy prohibits bestowing on children ‘ridiculous or shameful’ names such as ‘Friday’ (although that seems fairly innocuous to us) and, while in New Zealand ‘Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii’ didn’t fall foul of a requirement not to ‘cause offence to a reasonable person; or be unreasonably long’, it did result in a custody order being made for the protection of the child in question. You have been warned.

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.