By Jennifer Hudson Taylor
When writing fiction, authors must decide whether or not to use fictional or real names for celebrities, places, businesses, and brand names. Many authors feel that if they create a name it takes away from the authenticity of their book. Others are so concerned with possible law suits and legalities that they shy away from using real names at all.
I believe there is a need for balance. Authenticity is important, but so is staying out of legal trouble with copyright issues. When is it okay? How does one determine if it is necessary? Below are a few suggestions to consider.
There are laws that give people the right to mention household names without being sued. A household name could be a person, place, or thing that is so well known, the majority of people in each household nationwide will recognize that name. Hanna Montana, Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, Britney Spears, all these celebrities are examples of household names. A celebrity doesn’t have to be a Hollywood name. Just as many people are familiar with Barbara Walters, a news anchor, as with Hanna Montana, an actress and rock star.
You can use these celebrity names in your book to identify with the “look” or personality of a character, but I wouldn’t recommend making them a character in your book, unless it is a very brief and favorable moment. One example is that your main hero or heroine might love a particular star. This character might get to briefly meet this star, but keep it brief and positive. Celebrities still have rights to their privacy, and you don’t want to give any negative impressions that could land you in a lawsuit.
Another example would be stating that a character had a dark, gothic look that reminded one of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissor Hands. This isn’t referring to Johnny Depp personally, but to the character he played in that movie.
You wouldn’t want to create a fictional city with all the landmarks of New York, describe its location, and then give it a different name. It just wouldn’t feel right to readers. Why? Because so many people would know you’re referring to New York since it is so well known. A widely known location like this is one of those places you would want to name in your story.
What about local communities and developments? Lots of people who have never been to New York have heard of the Bronx, Manhattan, Ellis Island and other areas around the city. I’ve never been there and I still know that there is a China Town in the city and that Fifth Avenue is THE shopping place. It would be more appropriate to create fictional names for small neighborhoods in an area of New York that isn’t so widely known.
Small towns are easier to create fictional names for because people can’t identify with places they’ve most likely never heard of or been to. If you decide to use the real name of a small town, be sure to do your research regarding everything in that town. You will want to create fictional names of streets and businesses just to make sure no one or business could be “identified” in your story.
Businesses and Brand NamesYou probably want to be more careful about listing businesses and brand names than anything. People are very peculiar about the reputation of their business and their ability to increase profits. These businesses are copyrighted and any reference to them could be more of an issue because it could infringe or impact people’s perception of their product or service. This could affect lives, jobs, and profits.
If you want to indicate that your hero is an executive at Coca-Cola corporation, you should probably make up a different beverage and company name. The reason I suggest this, is because your story will need conflict, and the possibility that someone could think negative of anything you’ve written is a risk. What you think is positive may not be positive to someone else at that company.
You might be thinking, but isn’t Coca-Cola a household name? Yes, it is. And in your book you could mention that your character sat drinking a Coke. This is going to give them subtle marketing publicity, and at the same time show a personality trait of your character. It makes a difference if your character only drinks Coke and hates coffee, tea or lemonade. It shows personality. This is a brief reference that can’t be used in a negative light. But leave it at this and go no further with it.
Historical ReferencesHistorical writers tend to have a little more play with proper names of people and places that no longer exist. However, there are descendants of those people, as well as people who have lived in areas that they take pride in the history of those places. You will need to be sensitive to these feelings in your book.
If your story will show a person in a negative way, make sure it is fact based, documented, and well-researched before using it. Otherwise, you could have the great-grandchild of that person suing you for defamation of their ancestor. People who are not writers still have the impression that a book in print will make an author millions, and they could be out to make a quick buck if they think they can. Don’t give them any reason to challenge you.
With these simple suggestions in mind, write using authentic names were appropriate to enhance authenticity, in brief contexts, always keeping references to any real person, place, or thing in a positive manner, and you out of unwanted lawsuits.
Monday, May 19, 2008
By Jennifer Hudson Taylor