Usage of trademark, proper name, etc. for novel writing

Not entirely sure if this is the correct area, but…

Does anyone have a few links on the appropriate (and legal) use of trademarked names and products, as well as proper, personal names for use in novel writing (fiction)?

In other words - what are the correct usages of something like:

“When John Wayne and Ben Johnson got together on a weekend, John liked to drink Coca-Cola, mixed with Maker’s Mark whiskey when he smoked his Marlboro cigarettes.”

Or should one totally avoid the use of proper names for well-known personalities, and simply come up with “aliases”?

I’m curious about the correct references, etc. needed when writing fiction. Please note that I am more interested in “self-publishing” ebooks, and may not have the benefit of a proper editor at an established publishing house to offer guidance and correction.


AFAIK in the fiction area you’re allowed to use any proper names of real people or institutions.

Dan Brown, for instance, referred to the Vatican itself by its proper name, which gave him lots of free publicity when the Vatican criticized his novels.

On the brand side, some companies might be interested even in sponsoring you if your mention is significant. Most movies nowadays collect huge amounts of cash based only on advertising of well known brands.

You can pop $40 for a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style (or somewhat less for an online subscription). That’s what most publishers use. Or you can just use educated common sense derived from reading other novels (from real publishing houses, not self-pub stuff) and seeing what they do.

The example sentence you provide contains nothing even remotely invasive of trademarks, copyright, or personal space.

There’s no need to avoid naming well-known celebrities, as long as you’re just naming them, and not putting them to work as characters (though this can work, too: See Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon). Brand-naming is fine, as long as you’re not being particularly defamatory . Using generics and aliases tends to result in generic, context-free writing. But then, sometimes, a new name for an existing product is more literarily useful: Madam Rachel’s Jordan Water becomes The Oil of Lebanon made by the parents of Miss Dunstable, the Ointment Queen from Trollope’s Framley Parsonage.

Try going one paragraph in American Psycho without stumbling across five brand name references. :slight_smile:

I had meant to use that perfect reference of brand-names gone wild, but thought the ladies of Framley Parsonage might find it frightening.

I read about this a while back and these are the rules of thumb I gleaned from my research:

  • brand names are capitalized,
  • if a brand name has become part of the common lexicon (Keenex, Aspirin, Band-Air) capitalize anyway as a courtesy,
  • never associate real-world brands, companies/corporations or governments with criminal, immoral, or questionable activities unless said brands, companies/corporations or governments are already on public record in such associations or similar associations,
  • persons in the public eye may be named or used as characters in fictional works without permission as long as the story doesn’t show/describe them taking actions or speaking opinions the real person objects to (if you aren’t sure, get permission; if you can’t get permission, change the character name),

Some “for instances” are:

  • You can have J. Edgar Hoover appear as a cross-dresser in your story because there’s documented proof that he was. However, if you’d done so when he was still director of the FBI, you’d wouldn’t just have been risking a law suit. You might have disappeared off the face of the Earth… Forever.
  • If you’d portrayed Rock Hudson as a homosexual in a story you wrote in the 1970s, no one would have believed you. AND you would have faced a law suit.
  • You can associate pretty much any scumbag activity with the CIA, NSA, or just about any other alphabet agency if you’re feeling really, really brave. They likely won’t sue you or make you disappear. I’m pretty sure. :smiley:
  • Even though Monsanto has been in the non-mainstream news a lot over the last few years regarding some pretty evil stuff, I wouldn’t paint them with too black a brush in fiction just yet. They’re far too powerful to toy with.

Thanks all!

Pretty much what I suspected - but better safe than sorry.