What You Can and Can’t Legally Use In Your Fiction Book

Often, I come across questions about copyrighted material, trademarks, and whether or not certain things can be used in fiction. Here’s a common list of items I see authors asking about.

Towns/City Names: You can use the names of real towns and cities without any problems. I tend to use real large cities and make up the names of smaller towns. It’s easier to “create” a town to your story’s specifications and needs. You can take liberties with real places by making up the names of streets or businesses.

Company/Brand Names: You can use real company/brand names (Nike, Ford, Frito-Lay, Xerox, Facebook, etc.) as long as you don’t show them in a bad light. For example, you can write: A guy who worked for Xerox sat there eating his Fritos with his Nike-covered feet propped up on the dashboard of his Ford Explorer while he scrolled through the Facebook feed on his cell phone. You can’t write: “(Insert real clothing manufacturing company name) employs sweatshop workers from a third-world country. They pay them pennies and have beaten those who complain.” (Unless you have cold-hard facts that it’s true, make up a name for the company.)

Song/Album Titles, Movie/TV Show Titles, Book Titles: These are free to use, but, again, it’s recommended you don’t talk bad about them in any way, i.e., “It’s the worst song ever written.” (You can even use them for your own book titles as long as you’re not violating any registered trademarks.)

Lyrics: A BIG NO-NO! (Most of the time.): Most song lyrics have copyrights on them for 50-100 years. They usually have 2 copyrights to them: one belonging to the artist who wrote it and one to the recording company that released it. However, there are songs out there that are considered “fair use” and other songs that you can get permission to use. In 2015, Helen Sedwick, an author and an attorney in California, wrote a blog post on this, and it has a lot of good information on it. I highly recommend reading it if you’re really interested in getting permission to use a song’s lyrics in your book. 

Celebrities (Authors/sports figures/actors/actresses/politicians/any other well-known-figure): Again, free to use, but don’t risk being accused of libel by showing them in bad light (no matter how much the press and tabloids have done that).  Recently, actress Scarlett Johannson won a defamation case against a French author. 

Excerpts from books, poems, newspaper/magazine articles, blog posts, etc.: Unless you have permission from the author and give proper credit to the author and the original publication, you’re leaving yourself open to a lawsuit. (Also, a possible ban from book sites for plagiarism.) The exception to this rule is anything written before 1923 is considered to be public domain and can be used. Some works written after 1923 also fall into this category. If you’d like to learn more about public domain and how to figure out if a written work is available for use or not, check out this article from the Stanford University Libraries.

Images of Celebrities or Any Other Image Found on the Internet: Just because an image can be found freely on the internet, it does not mean you’re allowed to use it any way you want. While there are sites like Pixbay that have images you can use for free, most images are copyrighted and require you to purchase them for use. To ensure you won’t get sued for using an image, make sure you either purchase the image from a legal listing site (Shutterstock, Depositphoto, etc) or the original photographer, or research the copyright terms on free-use sites like Pixbay. This includes images you use for covers, teasers, and on your website. There are actually people out there who post their images on the web, then do searches for anyone using them on their website or social media page and suing them for unauthorized use. 

As with all my posts, these are simple guidelines to help you. Some are not written in stone, and you may find ways around the limits if you really feel you need a well-known name or previously-written work in your story. Make sure you research anything that belongs to someone else before using it in your books and risking a lawsuit.

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