Thursday, June 11, 2015


I've previously spoken about the legal issues involved in using brand name products.  In general, as long as you're not using the product to indicate a generic, and you're not disparaging the product in a way that would harm the brand, you're allowed to use known brands.  At the same time, it's always a good idea to get permission just to be sure.

However, there's another phenomenon I've noticed recently, and that's writers using substitute product names.  From what I've seen, it involves subtle variations to the name whereby readers still know what the author is referring to, but the writer thinks he or she has skirted the edge of legalities.  I've seen Twitter become Flitter, just as I've seen Kraft Macaroni & Cheese become Smack Macaroni & Cheese.

These are all well and good, but they do present a few challenges.  First of all, if it's readily apparent which product you're referring to, even if you've changed a letter or something, you could still be in legal trouble.  Product substitution in this case doesn't work because everyone knows which product you're talking about.  If you're going to disparage something, you need to alter it substantively enough so that several companies could think you're talking about them, thus making a legal case much more murky.

Of course, this leads to the second difficulty - if you change the wording too much, people might not know what you're talking about.  If you changed Xerox to PicItNow, your audience might not realize you're talking about photocopiers.

If a brand name is really that important to you, get the company's permission.  If they won't give it to you, consider changing it.  For example, I got Beretta's permission to use their brand name in Akeldama right off the bat, with the caveat that "bad guys don't use Berettas."  That wasn't an issue since the only person in the novel who uses a Beretta is part of the vampire hunting teams.  However, my main character uses a Glock 17.  It's a like an extension of who he is, but I was having trouble getting the company to get back to me(they didn't seem opposed - they just wouldn't return my emails).  I also knew that changing the name to "Flock" wouldn't get past the issue.  I finally copped to them not getting back to me, so I wrote and let them know I'd change all my firearms to Berettas.  Amazingly, I had permission to use Glock in my novel in less than four hours.

Putting in real products helps give us an air of authenticity since readers recognize them, but substitution is allowable if you're careful.  Just be aware of the challenges and know how vital it is to your work.

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