Product Placement, Real World Professional References In My Story

by Todd Bergmann-Rogers
(Phoenix, AZ)

Hi again, Glen!

I am curious.

When would I need to ask permission to use a product, service, invention and/or a professional public figure's name (like RuPaul or, say, another real world public figure) or other copyrighted or intellectual property references in my story and how would I go about requesting that permission?

Furthermore, how would I reference that permission in the formatting of my eBook or physical book?

I am reading more and more books in the 1st person these days and these authors are using quite a bit of product placement, pop culture and aforementioned general "real world" references that would be copyrighted or protected by intellectual property laws (like movies and TV Shows).

I was wondering also what is considered too much (if there is such a thing)?

Your insights are always eagerly looked forward to!

Thanks for your help in advance!

Answer: Hi Todd,

I feel I've answered this question many times, but here goes. (Just remember, I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. The following is my understanding based on what I've read, but in any situation where there's a lot of money involved, you may wish to consult a lawyer.)

Luckily, book publishing is often an area where there is not a lot of net profit, so even if mentioning a trademarked product was something you could be sued for, it's usually not worthwhile for a company to bother suing a publisher or an author.

However, as you point out, the names of products and public figures appear regularly in fiction. You don't need to get permission to include them.

Public figures by definition are in the public domain. If it were illegal to mention them, the entire news media would shut down overnight. Same with product names.

When a product name is trademarked, it just means you can't produce a similar product with the same name and
sell it, thus confusing the public and unfairly cutting into the market share of the company that trademarked the original product. It doesn't mean you can't write a review of it or mention it in your novel. Nor do you need an acknowledgements page.

Mentioning products that are common is often a way to add authenticity to a story's setting.

The only way you could get into trouble is if you say something that is untrue about a real person or product that has the potential to damage the reputation or business of the owner -- in other words, if you tell a lie that costs someone money.

For instance, if you put in your story that product X causes cancer or politician Y is a pedophile -- and you have no evidence to support such a claim -- then you could get into trouble.

But the mere mention of a product or public figure is not a problem. If anything, you would be giving free publicity to the entity in question, for which they are more likely to be grateful than litigious.

The other thing you can't do is reproduce copyrighted material -- such as words written by another author or songwriter, or images created by an artist -- beyond certain limits, without permission, because that would cut into another creator's right to profit from their work.

In cases where you do want to reproduce this sort of intellectual property, you would need to contact the publisher to request permission.

So if Paul Simon writes a song about his Nikon camera and publishes a recording of it (which he did), he doesn't need Nikon's permission, because simply mentioning a trademarked name doesn't hurt the owner financially. However, if you want to reproduce Simon's lyrics in your novel, that would trespass on Simon's right to profit from the reproduction of his work, and you would need permission.


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Feb 23, 2017
Re: Product Placement, et al.
by: Todd Bergmann-Rogers

Crystal clear, and thank you so much!

I knew I had already asked a similar question, but I was hoping that the slight change in context might yield an answer that confused me less (not your fault, certainly, I think I thought myself into a box with the last attempt to understand this subject).

With the political climate the way it is today, you just never know when you're going to run into a situation whereby you're facing down a cease and desist order or some kind of legal haranguing over a mention that wouldn't have garnered interest before.

Your explanations are, as usual, clear and very well thought out.

I am grateful you gave this another shot for my benefit.

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