UPDATED: Post Profile Brings Up Touchy Subject: What Claim Do Writers Have on Their Bylines?
Ann Powers, meet Ann Powers.
Ann Powers, you were the subject of a good profile by Ylan Q. Mui in the Oct. 11 Washington Post Magazine. Your real name is Jayne Lytel, and you chose your blogger handle by mashing together your middle name and your grandmother's maiden name.
Ann Powers, you are the rock critic for the Los Angeles Times, a writer so prized by your employer that you have kept your job despite having recently relocated to Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Ann Powers the rock critic, who I soooorta know—I have met her and used to work with her husband at Spin—wasn't jazzed about the existence of Ann Powers the blogger. "I know Ann Powers is a fairly common name," she writes in an e-mail, "and apparently the blogger in question has a legitimate claim to it...but still.....it seems like an odd choice."
Or maybe not, Ann Powers the rock critic continues, "given the possible Google hits for someone using a name — mine — that's already all over the Internet and which is associated with often-searched subject like Michael Jackson and 'American Idol' and other things pop."
I've called and e-mailed Ann Powers the blogger for comment but she hasn't replied. I'll update when/if she does!"I'd never heard of her before," says Lytel of the Times' Powers. "I was just so excited to have a name that meant something to me."
In an e-mail, Mui says she came across Ann Powers the rock critic's name when first researching Lytel's blog, and that she's surprised the rock critic "even read it! But not sure why it would be relevant to list the coincidence. It doesn't strike me as a very uncommon or unlikely name."
For some writers, the odds of someone with the same byline popping up are roughly the same as Michael Pollan joining the board of Monsanto. The Washington Post's J. Freedom du Lac is known as Josh du Lac to his friends (a group that includes this writer, who is confident his own byline is safe from blogger incursion). The fancy byline, du Lac says in an IM, came because an assistant sports editor at the Sacramento Bee, where he was an intern in 1993, "knew my middle name was Freedom – kept calling me that – kept telling me to use it in my byline....Eventually, after I got hired on, I decided to just change it."
Mui, who has a rather excellent byline as well, says she uses a middle initial not to distinguish herself from another Ylan Mui—even among other people of Vietnamese descent, she says, her name is"pretty unusual"—but because "my name means something all together, so I don't want to drop any part of it! But sometimes editors or whoever forget to stick it in. I'm not too fussy about it but do prefer it!"
But even if your name is statistically more probable than "J. Freedom du Lac" ("Ann Powers," for instance), you may have a claim against someone operating in the same field, says Alice Neff Lucan, an expert in media law whose name is also marvelous. She points to Chapter 1, Section 106a of the Copyright Law of the United States, which says the author of a work of visual art "shall have the right...to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work of visual art which he or she did not create." "Visual art" does not include an "electronic publication," however, a definition Lucan says she doesn't trust.
If a blog could be considered a work of art, this possibility is raised, Lucan says (remember, Ann Powers the rock critic is a blogger as well). There's also "the tort of false light invasion of privacy," Lucan says. If a court were to find that Ann Powers the blogger's blog cast Ann Powers the rock critic in an unfavorable light, Ann Powers the rock critic may have a case. "I don't think that's a slam-dunk case," Lucan cautions.
Not that Ann Powers the rock critic is particularly inclined to pursue legal remedy. She says that she thought Girl on the Brink was "close to home," so she put it to her Facebook friends. Some "thought maybe I should take action, but...most were like, no big deal."
"I don't know if it's a big deal," she says.
Lytel says that since the profile ran, not much has changed for her professionally. "There’s a lot of guys who’ve come out of the woodwork offering to buy me a drink—or more," she says. "But I still don’t have a full time job or a book deal."
But if you got a book deal, I ask her, what name would your book come out under?
Lytel, who says she's sent her agent a copy of the Post story but hasn't followed up, says, " I would lean toward using Ann Powers because I've branded the name with Girl On the Brink, and I'd want to extend the brand beyond the blog."