What are the limits of using IPs in a novel?

by Brad
(Chico, CA)

Question: Ready Player One references tons of intellectual properties, several of which are integral to the plot. Do you know if the publisher had to clear all of those, or is it possible to use IPs in that way without worrying about rights issues?

I’m sure they had to clear everything used in the movie, but I was wondering if it’s different for a novel.


Answer: As always, bear in mind that I am not a lawyer and not qualified to give legal advice. Worse, I haven't read or seen Ready Player One, so I'm hardly an expert on the particulars of that production.

I believe I heard in the news that the film studio owned the copyrights for many of the intellectual properties used, which simplified things.

But if they didn't, they would absolutely have had to secure rights and permissions to use any material that was not in public domain. This material would include things like images from the games.

In a novel, you could certainly mention the title of a video game, since there is no copyright on titles. You could say your character was playing a particular game. But you could not reproduce images from the game or quote text from the game unless that game was in public domain.

Similarly, one cannot copyright ideas, only particular expressions of ideas. So you can have the idea of a sword & sorcery roleplaying game in a novel without the risk that the owners of Dungeon & Dragons could sue you for copying their idea. But you cannot copy any of the language from the D&D manuals, novels, or modules.

I don't believe any video games are in public domain (at least none that were commercial successes), since copyright in the US lasts until 75 years after the death of the creator of the material, and I don't personally recall seeing video games or desktop computers before 1970.

At any rate, all the materials on websites are copyrighted, though you could mention the title of a website. Also, if you are going to make a particular web business the villain, it may be best to change the name.

Hope that's helpful.

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