Brand names and other copyright concerns

by Chandra
(Fontana, Ca. USA)

Question: Is it ok for characters to use real brand name items? I've been given conflicting answers for this question. For instance, I read somewhere that as long as you get permission its fine, while others have said that I would be sued for copyright. Also, can you mention the names of websites and actions associated with those websites that your characters may use (ex. Facebook and "likes", or Twitter and "hashtags")?

Answer: Please understand, I am not a lawyer and cannot give you legal advice.

However, it is very common to see brand names and company names in novels.

As far as I know, the only time a writer might get in trouble is if he were to defame a particular company or its products. For instance, if a character in your story were to discover that product X causes cancer (when it real life there's no proof it does), or if you portray a real company as immoral, unethical, or criminal, with no proof to back up your claims, and if your book sells well, the company might claim that you are damaging their business by spreading lies.

However, simply mentioning a company or its products is not illegal. If it were, journalism could not take place. Putting a product name in your novel gives the company free advertising via product placement, so why would they object?

There can be good reasons for mentioning a real product or business. Some names are so common, including them adds authenticity to your portrayal of contemporary life.

If you want to put a company or product in your novel that is unethical, immoral, or criminal, it is best to make up a fictitious one. But if the company is just part of the landscape, you're probably okay using a real name.

At any rate, publishers have legal departments to worry about such issues. Your job is to write a good story. Don't feel you have to tie your hands at this stage.

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