No, You Can’t Change Your Name to Dotcom (Unless You’re a 30 Rock Character)

This blogger knows a little something about name changes, since I am in the process of changing from my maiden name to my married name (and still receiving almost daily emails saying “Rachel who???”). As I learned in the days leading up to the wedding, in California, when you get married you have a few options as far as changing your name. The wife can take her husband’s last name, the husband can take his wife’s last name, or both people can change their last name to some combination of the two. (I lobbied halfheartedly for “Wilchie,” but no dice.)

Outside of the marriage context, however, formal name changes must be done in court. While this certainly allows for more variety and creativity in the selection of a new name, the statutory name change process is more intricate. Among other things, it requires publishing notice of the requested name change in the newspaper for four weeks, ostensibly to give potential creditors and interested government officials an opportunity to discover any nefarious attempts to avoid them by changing one’s name. (L.A. Laker Ron Artest’s name change to “Metta World Peace” — really — was initially delayed by outstanding parking tickets.) Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to any enterprising legislator to revise the law to allow name-changers to Tweet their new names, or post them to Facebook or Google+.

Even in the absence of a formal name change, you can always ask people to call you whatever you desire, a request that lawyers have jargonistically dubbed a “common law” name change. (For example, I’ve told my colleagues who can’t deal with my new last name that they may now refer to me as “The attorney formerly known as Wilkes.”) But even in Hollywood, the land of self-invention and reinvention — where celebrities name their children after everything from fruit to superheroes — there is still a limit as to what people can legally call themselves. Just ask cannabis activist, convicted felon, perennial candidate for New Jersey political office, and Los Angeles transplant Robert Edward (“Ed”) Forchion, Jr., who learned firsthand last month that the sky’s not the limit when it comes to statutory name changes in California, when the Second Appellate District affirmed the denial of his petition to change his personal name to the name of his website, NJweedman.com.

After being incarcerated in New Jersey for drug-related offenses (and released on bail for others awaiting trial), Forchion relocated to Los Angeles, claiming to seek “asylum” from New Jersey’s harsh laws and establishing a Rastafarian temple known as the Liberty Bell Temple II, which professes to be a “Member of United Cannabis Ministries.” (Some things are too easy to make a joke about, even on Law Law Land.) While in New Jersey in 2001, Forchion had unsuccessfully petitioned the state courts to change his name to NJWeedman.com. In 2010, Forchion tried again. Surely the land of medicinal marijuana dispensaries on every other block — where dispensaries reportedly outnumber Starbucks locations — must be more open minded about this name change business, right? Think again.

Forchion made the same petition to the California court, but he was again denied. The trial court held that having his personal name be identical or substantially similar to a Web site name would “likely create confusion and/or conflict regarding its use and/or possible or asserted ownership right.”

The California Court of Appeal agreed in a published decision, summing it up in a nutshell (I can’t make another nutshell joke, but you know I’m thinking it) with: “This appeal presents the question of whether an individual may statutorily change his name to the name of his Web site, including the ‘.com.’ The answer is no.”

The Court had two main grounds for its decision. The first was the possibility of confusion between the domain name and the personal name:

A statutory name change to NJweedman.com would last indefinitely. But Forchion might lose the use of his Web site by failing to make periodic registration payments or by breaching the registration agreement. In that event, the Web site name (NJweedman.com) could be registered to someone else and, at the same time, Forchion could keep his new personal name (NJweedman.com). If both parties used that name to conduct business, confusion might result. Further, even if Forchion were allowed to adopt NJweedman as his personal name, and he properly maintained it as the name of his Web site, the name might be so similar to another Web site name or trademark that the multiple usage might create confusion.

The court walked through the laws governing personal name changes and the laws governing registration of internet domain names. The court noted that the registration of NJWeedman.com by Forchion with the registrar Tucows expires on March 1, 2012, after which time there is a 40-day grace period wherein the name may be renewed. If it is not, then one of three things may happen: (1) the domain is marked for deletion, unless the owner pays to recover it within an additional period of time; (2) the domain is sold to the highest bidder after the grace period; or (3) Tucows acquires the domain name for its private domain portfolio, but the domain name may be returned to the owner for additional recovery and administrative fees. Forchion could also lose control of NJWeedman.com by breaching his registration agreement with Tucows. If Forchion lost control of the domain name for any reason, but someone else owned it, there could be trademark confusion. (As our loyal Law Law Land readers know, trademark confusion is its own can of worms — see herehere, or here.)

The court recognized that it was uncertain whether these various outcomes would ever occur, but concluded that “personal names and domain names should not overlap; they belong in distinct realms. Domain names were created for us on the Internet and should be limited to assisting a user in finding a desired Web site. By the same token, we should not treat a person as part of a domain.”

But the court also had a separate and independent reason for affirming the denial of the name change: that “the name change would associate Forchion’s new personal name with the Web site’s advice that individuals violate the law in several respects. A name change should not have that consequence.” (Translation: We don’t like your website and aren’t going to put our stamp on it.) Forchion’s website encourages his readers to call New Jersey law enforcement and provide false reports about the use of marijuana; provides instructions on how to grow marijuana at home; attempts to tamper with prospective jurors; and provides instruction on how to use marijuana and still pass a drug test at work. Needless to say, the Court was unimpressed with the website’s overall mission. In effect, Forchion may have the right to operate his website and espouse his views to the public, but the court saw no need to effectively support Forchion’s mission by legally facilitating his work.

And finally, the California court noted that it should not allow the name change in light of the fact that the New Jersey court already denied it.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat surprising that a court might introduce its own judgment into something so seemingly personal as a person’s selection of his or her own name. But a person’s name is so intricately tied to their role in civil and economic society that every state has turned the issue into one that is subject to judicial oversight. And that necessarily means that other public policy considerations — even if they happened to be imported from trademark or drug control law — come into play. Presumably, if Forchion’s parents had been foresighted enough to seek to name him NJ Weedman Forchion, they may have had an easier time than Forchion did in looking to change his name. But even parental naming decisions are subject to legal limitations, such as length restrictions (maybe cross Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious off your list), bans on the use of numerals (sorry, Andre 3000) or non-English characters (no way, José), and prohibitions on pictograms (so no, Prince was never legally a symbol). (Of course, none of this was enough to protect Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa.) I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the stuff law review articles are made of.

Lucky for Forchion, though, all is not lost. While he may not be able to get a statutory name change, the court’s decision doesn’t stop Forchion from calling himself, and asking others to call him, NJ Weedman or NJWeedman.com. And in the meantime, Forchion has garnered a lot of attention for himself and his “activist” views.

Welcome to Hollywood, NJ Weedman. You fit right in.

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One Response to “No, You Can’t Change Your Name to Dotcom (Unless You’re a 30 Rock Character)”

  1. Sam Pryor says:

    Delightful, Ms. Barchie. I guess I’ll have to abandon my attempt to rename myself ” Buy Break the Cycle Tickets for its October Event”. I was so eager to win that little competition among board members.

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