Brand names, trademarks, and contemporary conundrums

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For realistic fiction writers, brand names tend to slip into our writing. While editing my YA contemporary thriller and currently my NA contemporary romance, I ran into issues with brand names. Was I allowed to use them? Could I really be sued?After research into how to use brand names in fiction, I’ve compiled five general guidelines for using trademarks. Note that the tips below aren’t hard and fast rules, but they should be taken into consideration when writing your next contemporary piece.

(1) Brand names should never be mentioned in a negative light. I’m not even talking about someone buying a hamburger from Burger King and choking on it. Any sort of negative description associated with a trademarked item will not be appreciated by the company. When brand names are mentioned in literature, it should add something to the story. Save your complaints about the item for a well-written letter to the company, not for malicious intent in your story. If you do want to add a dimension of realism and admit a certain chain’s pizza tastes like cardboard, this brings us to tip #2…

(2) Fake brands should be used to represent real ones. It’s easy to replace names. Smoothie Queen and Palace of Pizza are two examples of brand name replacements. These fictional titles come without trademark infringements or worries over being sued. Readers are intelligent. They can figure out what a company resembles even without the official title.

(3) Don’t write falsely about the brand names you do use. If it’s completely unavoidable – you just HAVE to use Glad or Tupperware – make sure you’re using the right brand name for the right product. Don’t write “Domino’s hamburgers” or “Starbucks pizza”. Even if the brand names produce similar products, this could be considered a trademark infringement. Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a name that creates confusion regarding similar products. Keep tabs on whether or not you’re using the brand name correctly.

(4) But truthfully, most of the time you don’t need a brand name. You can use a water bottle instead of Arrowhead, or a tissue instead of Kleenex. As stated earlier, the brand name should add something to the story. If she’s ordering a certain drink specific to only Starbucks, that’s fine. But if she’s asking someone to pass her a Pop-Secret bag of popcorn, it’s a little unnecessary.

(5) The sheer volume of media references out there means that you likely won’t be sued for using a brand name, but do use common sense. Brand names are mainly issues for authors with high profiles, which is why many books feature fictional brand names rather than the real ones. But even if you’re not J.K. Rowling or Meg Cabot, you still shouldn’t put the brand name in the title or cover. Exercise caution when writing about trademarked items, no matter how large your reader audience may be.

While brand names are never necessary for a story’s plot to move forward, they are a nice (and realistic) addition to any contemporary story.
{Originally published on Pen and Muse Press}

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