Where Ladybugs Roar

Confessions and Passions of a Compulsive Writer

Monday, October 26, 2009

Trademarks, Quotes, Pop Culture and such....

Pop Quiz: Okay, so I like to use quotes or references to pop culture in my manuscripts but what are the rules regarding that?

1. If it's a fictional metaphorical use, do you need to deal with trademarks? (I.e. The man swung on the rope as effortlessly as Spiderman.) What about things like Disney or Harry Potter? Can a character say, "Who do you think you are, Harry Potter?" or "You're about as sweet as a Disney cartoon."

2. What if you're using like a quote from another book or person as a chapter header? Besides listing your source, do you need to do anything else?

3. With pop culture, do you have to be careful when using either living or dead celebrities? Frank Sinatra makes occasional appearances in some of my books, but it's in dreams, and I'm not portraying actual events. What do you think? Does the way a celebrity is portrayed (negatively or positively) make any difference if you're not claiming it's non-fiction?

4. Also, should you shy away from using terms that are brand specific for any reason? Kleenex, Taser, Coke, Googling, etc. I guess you run the risk of being "dated" in some cases, but it sounds odd if you don't.

I don't want to clutter up things with trademark issues or deal with the nightmare of rewriting characters to avoid nastiness. Anyone have any thoughts on this?


  1. These are all really good questions, and I am definitely not an expert, but I think you can use trademarked product names or names of famous people without any problem. For instance, a minor character in a book I recently read (he was a professor) was rumored to have kept company with famous people like Marilyn Monroe.. and for the record, I think using these brand names and the occasional reference to someone real makes it easier for the reader to relate to work of fiction.

    My question is - I recently referenced Pearl Jam in my wip, and I was compelled to put the name of the band in italics. Is that correct? Hmm...

    As for using quotes for chapter headers, I would think you might need permission to do so, but I'm not sure. I think this would be an excellent question for the Bookends blog!

  2. Ohhh... Good question. I only write historical fiction and I often wish I could reference slinkies and twinkies and everything in between. But I don't know if that's a copyright issue.

    And I love the painting on your blog. Ladybugs are wonderful! (Although I like butterflies even more.)

  3. In a writing class I took awhile back I learned that things that have become everyday common is usually alright, but it might be best to make up your own names for things. A tissue is better than using Kleenix which is a brand. Publishers do have to get permission to use certain products. If a company doesn't like the content of your book they may not want you mentioning it in your book. You definitely date your books when you refer to music groups, movies... anything going on in pop culture. Slang also dates your book. Best to make up your own slang. Be a trend setter like Scott Westerfield.

  4. I submitted a portion of writing for a professional critique once, and was gently reminded that naming brand items (i.e. cologne) was a big no-no.

    Go figure.

  5. I find that odd, Tamika, because I've noticed more and more that chic lit books are tossing out designer clothing names every other paragraph. In fact, if not for chic lit, I wouldn't know designer clothing lines at all. (Believe me, I'm not sitting around in Manalo Blahnik shoes, Helmut Lang pants, Vera Wang shirt, and tucking Kleenex into my Gucci bag.)

  6. By the way, the only reason I directed it at you is because the cologne jogged my memory.

    Has anyone else read the book "Jennifer Government" by the way? It slapped product placement in the face. I should go look for my copy and see what he did.

  7. Hi Wendy
    Thanks for dropping by and stopping a while... I was about to log off and remember I'm supposed to sleep. Now I'm keenly reading.
    In my novel "Near Edgware" - finished and keen to shop - one of my favourite snippets that got snipped was:
    "my new friends thought I was a remake of a famous cartoon movie: frumpy, lumpy, spotty, greasy, grumpy, sniffy and wheezy! And my parents wondered why I found it hard to fit in!”
    The struggle not to just name the film irritated me until I cut the reference.

  8. Exactly Elaine! Tripping around it just seems silly, but getting slapped with a lawsuit, or missing representation because of the horror of yanking out references scares me a little more.

  9. Stephanie, thank you for the compliment on my painting. I have a surreal painting that I keep meaning to post, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. It seems like you might not be missing out on the chance to post about twinkies, because I'm not entirely sure we've established you're allowed to. Dang it! You should be able to talk about whatever you want... within reason... and twinkies are always reasonable.

  10. I think your basically fine to have most of these things in your story Wendy. If it's not alright an editor will tell you.

  11. I agree with Mary. The editor will tell you.

  12. I've wondered about this too. Here is a link that seems to have answers, although it's a dry read:


    The Host referred to Cheetos, I know it happens a lot but I can't think of any other specific books.

    I love your painting also, and especially the story behind it.

  13. The husband brought up the last book of Stephen King's Dark Tower series where even Harry Potter was mentioned among a lot of song lyrics. He said if King used them--it most likely wasn't a big deal. The husband said it's verboten in most tv shows just because product placement is a big source of revenue for them, and they don't want to endorse things with conflicts with their sponsors.

    I once was reading a mystery novel where the female MC went to a movie which she described in enough detail and clearly enjoyed, but didn't name. It was, without a doubt, the movie "Serenity" and I found it distracting and lame that she went to so much trouble to describe it while avoiding the name. It felt like a movie review by the author in the middle of the narrative.

    I've discovered through my books that I have an obsession with twizzlers and Hitchcock movies. Both of those seem to come up a lot.

  14. Diana, I could swear in Twilight that she keeps ordering either a Diet Coke or a Diet Pepsi.

  15. I've read that the writer has to pay for the right to use copyrighted material (I don't know about trademarks). I don't think it's really an issue until you sell the book.

  16. I used a lot of song lyrics in my novel -- so did a fair amount of research reagarding the use of them.

    If they are in the public domain, then they are free game. If not, you must seek permission. Now, saying your character turned on the radio and heard Counting Crows. Well, that is actually a plug for that group and should not be a problem. But, quoting their lyrics is a bit more and requires prior permission.

    The songs I used were all southern gospel, were old spirituals and were in the public domain (ex: this little light of mine, amazing grace, etc..) It is a murder mystery involving a preacher's daughter and music is a big part of her family's day to day.

    Interesting discussion.

  17. Yes, wasn't it at the restaurant with her dad in the beginning, and then again at the other restaurant with Edward after dress shopping? My sister still has my Twilight book or I'd look through it real quick (remember my rant about people who don't return books? She's had it for eight months. Almost enough time to make a baby).

  18. Yep, Diana... that's exactly what I was thinking of. This made me think of how hilarious it would be to have conversations about products with the intention of being generic. *Couple standing in line at movie theater* "Yeah, let's see the movie about the animals who are attempting to save humans from the aliens." "I'll get the popcorn." "Okay, can you also get me a cola drink and some candy-coated chocolate circles?" "Yes, but you won't eat all of my red licorice ropes, will you?" "Of course not. The red dye will give me a headache and I left my pain reliever out in the small Japanese-made vehicle."


    Tess, I was shocked out how fast music in particular becomes public domain. (I looked all this stuff up like three or four months ago in relation to something I was working on, but it's still vague in my mind.)

    I know that none of this matters until it goes to be published, but I like having my ducks in a row. (Well, not ducks... I'm not really one for lining up ducks. Wolverines. I like having my wolverines in a row.) Besides, it seems amateurish to have a lot of things in a manuscript that will have to be cut right off the bat. It's entirely possible that I just like to worry about things, though.

  19. So I have no idea, on any of that, except Spider-man. Which has a hyphen, if you are going to break copyright laws do it properly.

    (mumbles to herself...if I've told you once I've told you a thousand times...)