Using References to Real World Companies and Other Author's Published Works In Your Story

by Todd Bergmann-Rogers
(Phoenix, AZ)

Question: In a story I am currently reading, the author uses real world company names rather than fake ones, and when using humor, sarcasm or other plot devices, uses references to stories published by other authors in the real world, namely Harry Potter when referring to a person sarcastically as being "like Voldemort" and, of course, mentioning the boy wizard by name as well.


How appropriate is it for authors to do this?

Are there any concerns regarding the use of such references to advance a story?

Does one need permission to use the story reference or is it just appropriate to give author credit and copyright information for company names in the bibliography or in a mention in a forward?

I just found it rather odd that these references were being used mainly because any writer worth their salt can create a fake name for a company without having to create an entire organizational structure.

Answer: Your concern is quite common, though I don't know why. Are there business schools that teach that naming other companies is a bad thing? Maybe that's true in advertising, however...

It is perfectly legitimate to use real names and cultural references when they reflect the setting of the story. You will see it done very often in fiction.

Such references create authenticity, whereas using fake names tends to move the story into a false, generic, less authentic story world.

For instance, if your character was a teenager in the 1970s, it would be natural for them to know about The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Coca Cola, and Levis jeans. Mentioning such names in a natural way makes the story world feel more authentic. Readers who were alive in that period would connect to them.

Making up fake names like "Frankenstein's Rocking Revenge," "Boro Bala" soft drink, or "Sals" pants would not convey any authenticity. They would undermine the author's attempts to realistically portray the world as it was in the 1970s.

Mentioning real companies or products is only a problem...

1. If the author is doing this for the purpose of slander. In other words, you can't unfairly portray a company as immoral or criminal without evidence to back up the claim because, if your book becomes popular, you could damage the company's business. In such cases, creating a fake company would be a good idea.

2. If you are quoting so much of another author's words that you are infringing upon his/her copyright in a way that might hurt sales of his/her work. For instance, you can't steal another author's characters and put them into your book, nor can you reprint song lyrics. But it's fine to create a fictional character who has read Harry Potter.

In most cases, it is unnecessary and unusual to have citations in fiction. But there may be exceptions.

Let's face it, if writers couldn't use real names at all, journalism could not exist. And journalists have much higher requirements to be truthful than fiction writers.

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