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I've seen this happen a few times but the one with the most notoriety is the South Park episode "Trapped in the Closet". That's the episode where they basically make fun of Scientology.

Both because of Scientology's litigious nature and the fact that some of the things in the episode come from copyrighted Scientology materials of contentious origin (namely Xenu), they end the episode with Stan taunting Scientology to sue him

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Followed immediately by the closing credits, where every single name is either "John Smith" or "Jane Smith"

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Part of the gag here of course is that Scientology can't sue the makers of South Park if they don't know who they are. Even Matt Parker & Trey Stone's names are replaced.

Is this just a gag or does this sort of thing afford any actual legal protection? It's not like it's a big secret who works on South Park and it's not like it would be difficult to figure out who worked on most of the episodes in that season, but does the fact that their names aren't actually attached to the episode have any actual legal basis?

As far as I can tell the Church of Scientology has never pursued any legal action against the creators of the show or Comedy Central outside of just generally not being a fan of the episode so either it worked as a legal tactic or Scientology didn't want to keep it in the limelight any more than necessary.

But I've also read that one of the old reasons actors in pornography often use pseudonyms is for legal protection - it's not unprecedented apparently to be arrested because you've run afoul of some obscure decency law somewhere (it also gives them a bit of an escape hatch should they want to leave the adult industry and move on to an anonymous rest of their lives)

Can using fake names or pseudonyms in the credits really protect you from legal troubles?

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    At least for the South Park example I think it was strictly part of the joke as any copyrighted materials used would have been under fair use as the show is satire/parody. As for your other example, I have no idea. – djmadscribbler Feb 24 '15 at 17:07
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    This isn't really a movie question... it's a legal one that happens to involve the film industry. – Catija Feb 24 '15 at 21:05
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Ultimately your question is a legal one--and as many of us are not practicing lawyers (or representing ourselves as one), I cannot attest to whether there is any legal protection.

However, I believe the gag they are aiming for is less "you can't sue whom you can't identify" and more trying to introduce humor in the irony of juxtaposing "I'm not scared of you" with anonymity.

Consider Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 when addressing the Mandarin. He very cockily expresses who he is and where you can find him--which exemplifies his lack of fear of repercussions.

Contrast this to South Park where similar sentiments are conveyed "I'm not scared of you"--but then hides names behind John and Jane Smith, which exaggerates their fear of repercussions.

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Can using fake names or pseudonyms in the credits really protect you from legal troubles?

As a legal question, that would depend on the jurisdiction and the laws therein.

In the US, one would have to consider a variety of things to make this a winnable case:

  • is it libel or slander (if it is, there is a chance to seek damages)?
  • is it parody (parody is typically protected speech)?
  • etc.

But note that in this particular context the fake names have nothing to do with protecting the creators. It's simply a joke.

But I've also read that one of the old reasons actors in pornography often use pseudonyms

While there may be some argument for the obscenity laws issue (especially in some jurisdictions) your latter theory is the more common reason people use stage names in porn: to avoid being attached to a particular vehicle that they may not always want to be associated with in the future (and, likely, adding some distance to relatives as well in many cases).

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