Sunday, May 24, 2015


Let me start this by reminding everyone that I am not a lawyer.  I am a writer, and, like most of you, my grasp of the law comes from that most famous of universities, Google College.  That said, I've had a few questions out there regarding what can be included in a book, so I thought I'd share how I intend to tackle them in my novels.

(Once again, this is only how I intend to tackle these issues - sad that we have to put up this many disclaimers, but if we don't, we open ourselves up to thorny legal issues, and since I'm not a lawyer, I have no desire to comment on anyone's situation but my own)

There are often questions about using brand names in novels.  For me, it's "yes, but..."  If I'm having a character use a specific product, like drinking a Coke, that's fine.  However, I have to make sure that the product is indeed a Coke(or a Sprite, or a Mountain Dew, etc.), and that I'm not using the brand name as a generic.  Xerox makes photocopies, but you're photocopying something, and you only Xerox it when you use that brand.

Also, I make sure I don't demean a product when I use it.  From a legal point of view, I can't do something that would degrade the product in the eyes of its audience.  Doing so would open me up to a defamation lawsuit, so if I take on a product, I'd better make sure its reputation is already in the toilet, like Edsel.

As a general rule, I always try to get permission from the company whose product I utilize, even if I think it's fair game under the law.  This way, there's is no doubt about crossing a line.  In my experience, most folks are flattered and happy to accept the free advertising.  Phillippe's in Los Angeles plays a part in Akeldama, so I contacted them a while back and asked for permission to use their name.  They were glad I asked, and they enthusiastically gave me their support.

On the flip side, someone will occasionally say no.  This happened in the same novel when I set the first vampire attack on a college campus.  The college in question initially gave me permission...until I told them it involved a vampire attack, at which point they got skittish because they feared what talking about violence would do to their image(as if prospective college coeds are really worried about vampire attacks when they choose a school).  So, to be safe, I dropped all reference to their name, and even to their state.

So, what about people?  This gets trickier.  I don't know a single author who hasn't used people they know as the outline of a character.  It's knowing someone real that makes the character more real.  However, I have to make enough changes that I can reasonably say my character and Joe Blow down the street are not the same guy.  While some people have been known to be thrilled they were killed off in some gruesome fashion, there are a few sticks in the mud who object.

The same thing applies if I badmouth somebody.  Actually, even more so.  If I come down hard on someone, that person's reputation better already be in the toilet.  I can get away with calling Scott Peterson a murderer because he's been tried and convicted of, well, murder.  But again, I can't do it to Jim Bob down the street because he hasn't been, and Jim Bob might take offense.  Similarly, I can crack at Albert Einstein but not Stephen Hawking because it's generally considered legally impossible to defame dead people.  I don't have to worry about Jefferson Davis' widow coming after me if I include him in a novel and make him the son of a crack whore.

In general, I use common sense.  If it makes me tingle or feel funny to include a specific person or brand name, I alter it.  Better safe than sorry in our litigious society.

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