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If I want to create a video game with historical figures like Napoleon or Pythagoras, do I need licenses for their likenesses?

San Francisco, CA |

I know for example that sports games like Madden or NCAA Football require some sort of licensing agreement with the players' associations. Just was curious if that applied to world-historical figures who died a long time ago as well...

Thank you for your time.

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Attorney answers 4



This post is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice specific to you. This general information is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney in your jurisdiction. The attorney client relationship is not established by this post.


No, not necessary.

The above is general legal and business analysis. It is not "legal advice" but analysis, and different lawyers may analyse this matter differently, especially if there are additional facts not reflected in the question. I am not your attorney until retained by a written retainer agreement signed by both of us. I am only licensed in California. See also terms and conditions item 9, incorporated as if it was reprinted here.

Michael Charles Doland

Michael Charles Doland


While as historical figures no license is necessary, be careful about copyright infringement. If you are using a painting, e.g. make sure there is no copyright ownership of the painting. For Napoleon, for example, certain famous paintings may have copyright ownership by the French state or state-museum. The facts may often impact general legal analysis.


The legal issue here is that when you use someone's likeness or image this may be violating that person's right to privacy and publicity. These are state causes of action and each state has a different take on how they apply this protection. For example, some only protect celebrities or public figures, others protect anyone and still others will extend protection to dead people.

That said, even those states that protect dead people will only do so for a limited amount of time (generally no more than up to 10 years after death) and certainly historical figures like you noted would not be protected anymore.

You still need to make sure that you are not violating anyone's copyright interest however by using, for example, an image of some figure that is really a artistic work or graphic that is currently protected under copyright laws.

You may want to consult a lawyer in private before you jump in just so you can explain your objectives in more detail and go over some of the many other legal considerations involved here such as business formation, trademark, copyright, terms of use, etc.

Best regards,
Natoli-Lapin, LLC

DISCLAIMER: this is not intended to be specific legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. No attorney-client relationship is formed with the law firm of Natoli-Lapin, LLC on the basis of this posting.

Andrew Mark Jaffe

Andrew Mark Jaffe


Good answer, Frank. Very complete.


Frank Natoli's answer is correct -- the short version is no, the likenesses of these historical figures would not require licenses but you can get caught up by accidentally using copyrighted material (so make sure the quotes you are using come from the actual subject and not Civ V!)

I focus my practice on (video) gaming industry, casino gambling, and complex internet law issues, electronic free speech, entertainment law, copyright and trademark law, and computer fraud. I primarily represent game developers and founders of emergent internet technologies. The author is a Maryland attorney; however no answer given on Avvo is intended as legal advice or intended to create an attorney-client relationship.

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