It is commonly known that Bob Dylan was originally Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota. The legendary singer left Hibbing in 1959 to enroll at the University of Minnesota, and then less than a year later moved to New York where he achieved fame and fortune as a folk and later rock and roll performer. Sometime after leaving Hibbing, he began performing under the name “Bob Dillon” or “Bob Dylan.” There is some evidence that he initially spelled his new name “Dillon,” but changed it to “Dylan” after he arrived in Greenwich Village. In any event, he legally changed his name to Dylan in 1962 while living in New York.
Why Zimmerman chose the name Dylan has long puzzled his biographers. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Marshall Matt Dillon of TV’s iconic western Gunsmoke, and Dillon Road in Hibbing have all been suggested as possible sources. Dylan himself has been characteristically vague and enigmatic on the name issue.
From 1952 (the year that Dylan was in the seventh grade) to 1959 (the year he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Minnesota), the Green Bay Packer defensive backfield was anchored by Bobby Dan Dillon, a 6’1”, 180 lb. native of Temple, Texas who played college football at the University of Texas. Drafted by the Packers in the 3rd round of the 1952 NFL draft, Dillon (called Bob or Bobby) quickly moved into the starting lineup and for the next eight years was one of the few bright spots on a fairly dismal Packer team. Dillon was a first-team all-pro on four occasions, played in four Pro Bowl games, and was named first or second team All-NFL every year after his rookie season.
There is no evidence that Bobby Zimmerman was especially interested in football or any other sports while growing up in Hibbing. He did not play sports in high school, and while there are sports references in his later songs, they are principally to boxing and to a lesser extent, baseball. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that he wasn’t familiar with the sports figures of his era, at least in a general way.
I am not suggesting that Zimmerman chose the name Dylan to honor his football hero; it is more likely that he was familiar with the name (for reasons explained below) and simply liked the way it sounded. (Of course, it could also be that the name Bobby Dan Dillon and the football player’s rural, southwestern roots appealed to the young Jewish Midwesterner who was soon to go to great lengths to project himself as a wandering troubadour from the heartland of America.)
Before the creation of the Minnesota Vikings in 1961, most northern Minnesota NFL fans followed the Green Bay Packers. This is confirmed by former Marquette Law professor Ken Port who grew up in the area around Hibbing in the 1960’s and 70’s and who is an acquaintance of many of Dylan’s Zimmerman relatives. According to Port, most of the older people he knew growing up had been Packer fans before 1961, and that many of them remained Packer fans after the arrival of the Vikings.
Packer games were broadcast into Minnesota on the radio each season, and from time to time on television as well. For example, television sets in Hibbing on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1954, could be used to watch the Detroit Lions-Green Bay Packer game on the Dumont Network. (In that game, the Packers almost upset the first place Lions, before falling 28-24.) It seems safe to say that any Packer fan is the 1950’s would have immediately recognized the name Bob Dillon
However, there was one even more direct Hibbing-Packers connection. In the early 1950’s, the Packer held their summer training camp in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, which was not terribly far from Hibbing. Moreover, on August 13, 1953, the Packers actually played an exhibition game in Hibbing against the New York Giants. Given that Bobby Zimmerman was 12 years old at the time, it is hard to imagine that he would not have known about the game, and he likely would have heard the names of the top Packer players discussed.
As for the legal question in the title of this article, it is hard to believe that the football Bob Dillon would have had any legal recourse against the folk-rock legend even if Dylan did “steal” his name. First of all, there is a general principle in property law that no one can own exclusive rights to a name. Moreover, as I noted several years ago in an article on the landmark right of publicity case of Uhleander v. Ericksen (1970), the Minnesota law regarding the right of publicity was almost completely undeveloped prior to 1970.
However, the tort of appropriation of identity was widely recognized in 1959, and presumably existed in Minnesota. The elements of that tort were (and are): (1) taking, (2) identification, (3) benefit to the appropriator, and (4) lack of consent. Elements (3) and (4) would appear to have been satisfied, but elements (1) (a taking) and (2) (identification) demand that third parties recognize the identity that has been ostensibly taken and act in a manner that tangibly benefits the taker. At a minimum, a person whose image is tortuously appropriated must be objectively identifiable; a benefit to the appropriator must accrue before a legal claim arises; and the use must be nonconsensual. In this particular case, it seems unlikely that anyone listening to Bob Dylan sing or contemplating purchasing one of his albums was ever under the misimpression that the singer-songwriter was the Packer defensive back branching out into a new career.
On a different front, in contemporary intellectual property law, Dillon could conceivably have maintained a trademark action against Dylan. Fans of sports law probably remember that in 1998, former basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sued NFL running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar for trademark infringement. The football playing Jabbar, originally known as Sharmon Shah, changed his name for religious reasons in 1995 while still a student at UCLA. Although the name was spelled slightly differently and the basketball playing Jabbar had been retired since 1989, there were a number of parallels between the two men that suggested some sort of linkage. Both had attended UCLA and both wore uniform number 33, albeit in different sports in different eras.
Nevertheless, the basketball Jabbar filed a trademark infringement action against his football counterpart, once the latter became established as a rising star in the National Football League. The case never went to trial, but the football Jabbar conceded the issue and agreed that for commercial purposes, he would play in the NFL under a different name. After initially playing under the name Abdul, he eventually changed his name to Abdul-Karim al-Jabbar, which was apparently acceptable to Kareem.
The earlier Dillon situation was different for a number of reasons, the first of which was the “undeveloped” state of trademark law in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In that pre-dilution era, the primary focus of a successful trademark infringement claim was the proof of likelihood of confusion in the marketplace.
Again, it is hard to believe that anyone in 1959 or 1960 confused the two Dillons/Dylans, particularly given the dissimilar spelling of the names. Moreover, while it is hard to believe that any knowledgeable sports fan really believed in 1996 that the 7’4” basketball legend Had actually embarked on a new, and apparently successful, career as an NFL running back at age 49 (his age during the football Jabber’s rookie year), it was true that many sports fans at the time assumed that the football Karim (who shared the same uniform number and alma mater with his basketball counterpart) was the son of Kareem Abdul Jabber (which he was not).
In contrast, no one ever suggested that they thought that Bob Dylan was Bob Dillon’s son (especially since the football Dillon was only eleven years older than the singer).
Unless Bob Dylan someday reveals where he got the idea for his name, we will be left to speculate on the matter. For the reasons stated above, however, I think it highly likely that Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota went through adolescence already familiar with name that he would eventually adopt as his own, albeit with an altered spelling.
Professor Adam Kurland of Howard University Law School can attest to the fact that I have been making this “Bob Dylan got his name from the Packers’ Bobby Dillon” argument since the late 1980’s when we were both colleagues at Chicago-Kent, and I first learned that there had been a Bob Dillon who played for the Packers.