On Using Trademarked Names in Your Novel

On Using Trademarked Names in Your Novel

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I said I wouldn’t write more “Novel Report” posts. If you’re writing a first novel, the story of my progress is probably interesting enough that I should write something about it. If not, you can skip past the italic text to the main article.

My final revision (a fourth revision) took less than a month. I moved on to a proofreading review and found a fair number of spelling errors, missing and extra words, and unclear sentences to re-write. My manuscript then went out to three early readers for their review. I’ve considered their recommendations and made changes where it seemed apt. What still remains to be done is the book cover, the e-book formatting, and short stories for promotion.

I included my second try at a book cover with the review copies. My first reader liked the cover. I do not. I’m working on a third.

The e-book formatting appears fairly easy. I already format my word processor documents without white space because I learned technical writing for my job. I learned html and css before I started blogging as part of my computer studies. The guides I’ve found have been all over the place. I’ve been doing lots of trial and error and creating my own process.

The short stories are not zipping along as quickly as I’d like. I have 20 in the works. Four of them now have the outline ready to go, so those will be written and posted on my Killer Stories blog shortly. I could write them faster if I’d use a plot formula, but where’s the fun in that?

I now return you to your irregularly scheduled blog post.

On Using Trademarked Names

There is no question about whether you can use trademarked names, company names, brand names, and corporate slogans in your writing. You know you can because you’ve seen them in other novels. All you need is the rules on how to use them so you don’t get nasty letters and lawsuits.

Trademark Infringement

If you use a trademark name for something not manufactured by a company, that is trademark infringement. If you’re going to use a company name for a product, make sure they make that product.

Also, if you make up a company for a story, make sure that company name doesn’t exist. Companies isolated to individual cities sometimes have the same name, but when one goes big they force all others to stop using their trademarked name. For example, if Bob’s Plumbing Supplies turns into a franchise and goes national, their trademarked name will force all of the other Bob’s Plumbing Supplies businesses to change their name. They do that by threatening a lawsuit. After your book is published, if it violates a trademark, the damage will be done. If using the trademark violates one of the rules below, a lawsuit may follow.

Trademark Dilution

Brand names are very strict on not having their brands used as the name of a generic product. A character can wipe their eyes with a facial tissue or a Kleenex facial tissue, but never with a Kleenex. A character can drive a sedan or a Ford sedan, but not a Ford. Note also that the brand name needs to be capitalized.

When you use a brand name alone, you are implying that it is the generic name of something. If the brand name was used alone often enough, that would establish it as a generic name and the company that put money into making the name a seller will have lost their rights. They will sue you to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Following this rule can work to your advantage. If you used a brand name alone, anyone not familiar with the brand wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. Everyone recognizes facial tissues and sedans. Everyone may not recognize that Angelsoft and Artegas are facial tissues and sedans. If they don’t, you confuse your readers.

The title of your book cannot have a brand name even if it’s paired with a generic name. That could create the impression that the company endorses your book. You’ll get sued for that too.

Trademark Defamation and Tarnishment

You can also get sued if you write negatively about a company or brand name. But, that’s only applies if you do, not your characters. If you say that McDonald’s sucks in a non-fiction article, you open yourself up to a libel lawsuit. If one of your fictional characters says that McDonald’s sucks, that’s okay. If you want to be super safe, invent a fictional company that sucks.

If you’re going to use an actual company in your story, it had better be shown in a positive light. If it’s going to be a horrible place to work or do business, make up a fictitious company. Libel is the issue again.

When you make up a fictitious company, do not make it so much like a real company that readers will be able to guess the real company.

Song, movie, and book titles are easy to deal with. There are so many of each that you’re best off just talking about the genre of the media. The character has a rap song playing, is watching an action movie, or reading a romance novel.

The easy way to tell if you’re stepping on trademarks or copyrights is to ask yourself whether you’re promoting or degrading a company or individual. If the answer is yes, you need to make changes. Your story is about people, not corporations and celebrities.

If you never speak falsely or negatively about a company, never use their name as a generic, and research the product and company names for your novel, you’ll be safe from lawsuits. Drop the brand names completely and you never need to worry about trademarks.

These Rules Can Be Broken

If you read lots of novels, you know these rules get broken all the time. It is possible to get away with apparent trademark violations for many reasons.

There’s the character opinion mentioned above. Fictional characters can say almost anything. It’s just their fictional opinion.

Companies that aren’t well known may be glad to get the publicity if it’s not negative. They would not be so glad to get publicity for suing an author, especially if it’s a successful author. The lawsuit profits might be their last profits.

Sometimes companies pay an author to mention their company or products. The agreement may allow many uses that would normally be trademark violations.

For my own writing, I have little trouble avoiding trademark violations because I don’t want to promote corporations. Even bad publicity is publicity. As an author, you’re making up stories. It’s not that hard to make up businesses.

If you must use trademarks, follow the rules above and you should be okay. I wish I could guarantee it, but new laws get created all the time that protect corporations at the expense of real people. You should read more than just this article before using trademarks in your writing. But, you’re a writer. Reading is your first love anyway. Am I right?


Article by Ivan Izo.

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