Writing About Real Places, Companies, and Products

by Kris
(Longwood, Florida)

Question: Do you have to get special permission to include something in your writing? For example, if I mention "Warriors: Into the Wild" by Erin Hunter, or a place such as Lake Mary Highschool, or Red Lobster, in my book. Can I just go ahead and write a scene that takes place or mention that product without permission or do I take a different route? And if I have to get permission, what's the best way to do so?

Answer. This question is difficult to answer without knowing the context (for instance, what you plan to say about these real life places or works) or whether this is a work of fiction or nonfiction. Also, I'm not a lawyer and don't pretend to be an expert on trademarks and copyright law.

That said, if a publisher wants to buy your book, they should have a legal adviser who can clarify such matters and let you know if anything needs to be altered prior to publication.

If you're writing nonfiction, you have the same obligations that journalists have to tell the truth as you are able to discern it, without malicious slander, and to back up your claims with evidence.

If you're writing fiction, you probably don't need to worry too much unless you are saying something defamatory about a corporation or its products, misrepresenting them, or misspelling their names. A simple reference is actually giving free advertising.

However, the issues vary depending on what you're referring to. You should probably not quote copyrighted song lyrics, for example, since your publisher may need to pay a fee to the copyright owner to reproduce them. If you are including living people in your novel, you may need to avoid saying anything that would damage their reputation. Dead, historical figures are generally fair game.

Mentioning real big cities is never a problem. But if your book is set in a real life high school, you probably should change the name so as to not risk offending any students or teachers who think you are writing about them and take offense at the characterization. Ditto for small towns and their residents.

Similarly, you may want to invent a fictitious restaurant just to be on the safe side. Ask yourself if it will really affect your story. I'm guessing that in most cases it won't.

You may want to check out this article that delves into the ethical issues a bit more... http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/fiction.html

Comments for Writing About Real Places, Companies, and Products

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Mar 04, 2011
Writing about Real People
by: Anonymous

Before including real, living people in your novel, you might also check out this article at Writers Digest... http://www.writersdigest.com/article/Can_the_Truth_Get_a_Writer_in_Trouble

Oct 05, 2015
by: nOVEL

I love to read different novels.

Dec 22, 2018
Use of real persons, organizations in a novel
by: Anonymous

Thanks for your advice, I am using real people and organizations in my novel but portraying them in the best light possible, good publicity for them.

Jan 11, 2019
Clarifying Question..
by: Anonymous

This relates to using political figures in a novel, but in a way that is neutral.

For instance, let's say I have a novel set in the future that depicts what the country might do if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The main characters in the books are all fictional, but could I reference the court making a decision and refer to specific real life justices being a part of that ruling, or could I only refer to the court in a generic sense (or with fictional justices?)

Jan 12, 2019
re: court decisions
by: Glen

As always, I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. However, if you are accurately referring to matters of public/historic record in a story, those are in public domain, so there's no problem mentioning them. Public figures such as politicians and high ranking government officials can be included in fiction.

On the other hand, if you want to have a story in which you alter the facts of what a particular judge wrote on a subject, and you don't make clear that the alteration is some alternate timeline or equivalent, that might be problematic. You should not damage people's reputations by spreading falsehoods.

In other words, don't have a bit of exposition like "History records Judge X was a misogynist... or hated babies... etc." unless there is solid historical evidence to back up the claim, or you make clear that this is an alternate history story (not the same Judge), or that the character making the claim is clearly ill-informed, biased, etc.

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