Kylie vs. Kylie: Who Owns a Famous Name?

Mar 2nd 2016


The headlines are juicy: "It's Kylie Minogue versus Kylie Jenner in a battle for who owns their name," says the BBC. "Who Will Win the Battle of the Kylies?" asks People Magazine.

Read deeper and you'll learn that reality tv personality/model Kylie Jenner, age 18, has filed to trademark the name Kylie. Singer/actress Kylie Minogue, age 47, is opposing the trademark. In her filing, Minogue apparently lays out her own celebrity career credentials and disparages Jenner's, in a rare legal fame-off.

The intersection of baby names and trademarks is serious business in Hollywood. The saga of famous parents Beyoncé and Jay-Z seeking trademark protection for their newborn's name made Blue Ivy our 2012 Name of the Year. At the time, I suggested that "none of this trademark brouhaha would have happened if the baby had been named something like Bella Carter instead of Blue." The Kylie case suggests otherwise.


Images via Splash News

Kylie was a hugely popular name in Australia in the 1970s, then took off in the U.S. in the late 1980s when Aussie Kylie Minogue hit our top-40 radio. (More on that later.) Over the past 30 years, about 100,000 American girls have been named Kylie. How can either celebrity claim to "own" such a common name?

They can't, really. The headlines claiming a "name ownership" dispute reflect the fact that trademarks confuse the heck out of most of us, journalists included. (A Guardian article on the Kylies even referred to "name patents.") With all due warnings that I'm a baby namer, not a lawyer, I see this as a pretty humdrum trademark dispute…and a much more interesting underlying baby name story.

A trademark is an exclusive right to use a word or phrase in a particular realm of business. I like to think of registering a trademark as securing your rights to your own earned reputation. For example, Tiffany & Co. built a reputation for selling top-quality jewelry. Another jeweler shouldn't be able to trade on Tiffany's name, and customers shouldn't be misled into thinking they're buying a Tiffany & Co. ring when they're not. The company's trademarks in their area of trade keep that from happening. Jewelry trademarks, though, didn't keep a veterinarian from registering the name Dr. Tiffany for pet dietary supplements, or a baker from trademarking Tiffany's Custom Bakery.

So what realm of Kylie commerce is Kylie Jenner trying to claim? I looked up her trademark applications, and it seems she has filed for rights to use the name Kylie in entertainment services, advertising and endorsements, fashion information and cosmetics. Kylie Minogue, meanwhile, has been branding products with her first name for decades. She has live trademarks listed for the name Kylie in the realms of "education & entertainment," music, jewelry and accessories, and for the full name Kylie Minogue in cosmetics, perfume, clothing, and much more. Minogue feels that Jenner's applications infringe on her existing trademarks and would dilute her brand. Fair enough.

Now for the baby name story. What leaps out at me is that Kylie Jenner almost surely owes her name to Kylie Minogue. That's not to say that Jenner was necessarily named after Minogue, but the name Kylie became a contender for the Jenners and thousands of other American families because Kylie Minogue brought it to our shores a decade before Jenner was born. The name's timeline shows a series of jumps, with Minogue front and center:

What we're seeing is a second-generation celebrity name. It's a fascinating illustration of what it means to choose a name made popular by a star. To some extent, you're playing on their playing field. They came first, and assuming their given name was distinctive, they likely staked a claim to use that single name in business.

That doesn't mean a celebrity namesake can't be famous in her own right, even in the same field as her predecessor. Think of the tennis champion Martina Hingis, who was named after tennis champion Martina Navratilova. The shared name didn't hold her back on the court. On the other hand, it might well have kept her from marketing tennis products under the name "Martina." That kind of drawback could loom larger in other fields. Imagine how carefully a young singer named after Beyoncé would have to market anything in the music industry, including music itself.

In our modern commercial world where fame inevitably comes with a flurry of trademark filings, I won't be surprised to see parents who want a brand-name-worthy baby name adding a new step to the name search: a search of the trademark database, to make sure your favorite name isn't already claimed in your own field of dreams.