Q&A: Do you need permission to mention a product name?

question answer

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Editors are frequently asked whether it’s permissible for writers to mention product or business names in books. The short answer is yes.

The long answer is be careful.

By the nature of doing business, companies put their brands into the public forum and in fact usually appreciate publicity. But you do need to ensure you’re not needlessly casting them in a negative role.

For example, if your novel takes place in Ybor City, Florida, it would create a great sense of place to have your characters dine at the historic Columbia Restaurant, founded in 1905. That would cause locals to say, “yeah, I know that restaurant.” It adds realism to the story.

Maybe you don’t need to specify the town, but you want to mention Denny’s because you need a place where your characters can meet in the middle of the night. That’s fine. But if it will be a crime scene, it’s probably better to make up a fake all-night diner.

Trademark owners can’t stop you from using their product names: your hero can drive a Toyota to Starbucks and work on his MacBook. The trademark owner will ask you to capitalize it as registered, as the capital B in MacBook, and they would prefer that you not use it in a negative context, e.g., “the victim was found in a Dumpster behind Denny’s.” (Note Dumpster is capped because it’s a trademark!)

Trademark owners often ask that their trademarks not be used in a way that doesn’t represent their product. An editor at the newspaper I used to work for once used the phrase “snap crackle pop” in an editorial that had nothing to do with breakfast cereal. She got a cease-and-desist letter from Kellogg Co.’s trademark lawyers. But if she had used the phrase to describe Rice Krispies, we’d have been fine.

Libel is another matter. One must be careful not to defame a person, product, or company in writing, unjustly. Those writing about the financial crisis need pull no punches in naming the companies that contributed to the housing market boom and bust, as long as what they report is true. But if, for example, your memoir speculates about malfeasance at a company but you lack proof, you’d better run the story by a lawyer first. News organizations do this often.

You don’t need permission to refer to a company or product by name. But do ensure that you are doing so in a respectful way.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

31 thoughts on “Q&A: Do you need permission to mention a product name?

  1. Sophie-Marie says:

    Hello,
    This is very interesting to know, I am writing a fiction novel and you have a point about not portraying real places as crime scenes; I will rectify this quickly.
    I do have a question in regard to non-fiction. I am working on a book on fashion, beauty, home decor, etc, that will be published in an e-book format, and I would like to know if I can recommend brands and stores to my readers (for example, where is the best place/chain to find a certain type of item within a price range, like Ikea for furniture, etc). I do so freely on my website, but I understand the rules are different in books, so I would really like to know if I can recommend brands freely.
    Thank you very much,
    Best,
    S

    • Yes, you can recommend products you like. On your copyright page or in an afterword, reveal any affiliations you have with those companies, for example if you received free samples or get commissions from them. You just need to be transparent about your relationship with the company. If you have no relationship with them other than being a satisfied customer, that’s great! They’ll appreciate the recommendations.

  2. Natalie B says:

    I am writing a fictional novel in which a terrorist event happens in my hometown. In my book, a winery is featured (which the terrorists in my novel have basically slowly taken over). I mention the winery’s name a few times, as well as the name of a second winery. I also mention the name of one of said town’s icons by name (against which an attack also happens in my novel). Should I contact the wineries themselves and ask permission to use their names in my book? Or would it be best for me to not mention their names at all, and just stick to descriptions?

    • I would make up a fictitious name for the winery that gets taken over by terrorists; you don’t want to insult the ownership of a real business by implying they have poor security. If the other winery is mentioned only in passing, you can leave it. It will make the story more realistic. Naming the famous icon that gets attacked is fine. Think about all the New York movies in which the Empire State Building is featured. You don’t have to ask for permission to mention a business in a neutral or positive light; if they didn’t want to be talked about, they wouldn’t be in business. The key is to avoid putting a real business in a negative light, which could be interpreted as defamation.

  3. Kyle meidlinger says:

    I am busy compiling a guide, it is aimed at boat owners and it contains the names and logos of certain products used to maintain the boats. I am not portraying the products in any negative lighting. Do you think i need permission from these companies to write about them?

    • Nope. In fact, if you are discussing their products in terms of their practical application, they will probably appreciate the publicity. What you do want to do is visit each manufacturer’s website and find out what limitations they place on the use of their logo. For example, they may stipulate that it not be put on a background color, or that it appear at a minimum size. You’ll also want to put a note on the copyright page indicating who each trademark belongs to. For example, “Rice Krispies is a trademark of Kellogg’s Corp.” Just to be on the safe side, add a disclaimer (if it’s true) that you have no financial stake in any of those companies, and that you received no compensation from them. But if, for example, you own stock in one of the companies, or you were given product samples to evaluate, put that in a note either on the copyright page, or in the acknowledgements section in the back of the book.

  4. Lola C says:

    I’m writing a sci-fi novel in which test subject are born in a facility, and the main character discovers some novels and reads them: they’re all real books, for example The Great Gatsby, The Lovely Bones and even the Bible. I was wondering if it is okay to quote some passages from these books and mention the titles in them, as I’m definitely shedding them in a positive light.

    • For books, you do not need permission to include a short quotation. That would fall under fair use.

      For poems and song lyrics, it’s better to get permission, as even a few lines is a big piece of the work.

  5. Gillian says:

    I’m writing a fiction novel where my main character is moving with his family. However: I need a name for the town he’s moving to. I’m describing the town as ‘a town no one had ever heard of’. I really want to use the name of my home town. Would I get in trouble for describing it as ‘a town no one had ever heard of’? Or should I take that description out?

    • You may get a nasty letter from the Chamber of Commerce (if there is one) or the mayor, but if it’s an honest characterization, they wouldn’t have much of a case.

      In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I think the same goes for towns. You may run into some opposition when you go back to visit, but as long as no one can accuse you of lying, you’re okay.

  6. Marissa says:

    So I’m writing a fantasy story and one of the characters is a gamer/fan boy type of guy. So is it okay to say something about him playing Halo on Xbox, or can talk about them watching YouTube, or say something like “it was on Wikipedia.” “So it must be true.”? Also I’m never sure but can you reference movies and books? Like can I have a character say they saw The Avengers or say they read The Hunger Games. I’m even more unsure of this but can I mention superheroes? Like can a character say their favorite superhero is Batman or can they call one of the other character Batman like they’re doing something and it’s like Batman so someone says “Okay Batman.” or can they say something and the character be like “I’m not Batman this is real life.”

    • Oh, yes, all of these are totally fine.

      What you cannot usually get away with–unless you’re writing satire–is making Batman or someone like that a character in your story. Satire is protected by fair use principles, but otherwise you would need a licensing agreement from the trademark holder to actually depict the character.

      But just mentioning trademarked names is allowed. Encouraged, even, because it’s promotional for the owners.

  7. Cris T. says:

    I am writing a technical ebook to teach users to use a specific application from a software company. Do I need the company’s authorization? Can I title the book with their product’s name, for example, “How to Write a Novel with XYZ Editor Software” ?
    Thank you.

  8. Jodie Hall says:

    Hi I am writing a novel that is set in my town. I was wondering do I need to seek permission to mention my local church and graveyard? Can I also mention my town?

    • You do not need permission to include in your story places that really exist. The only caution is if you are casting them in a negative light — for example, if your story accuses the church of corruption or the town council of malfeasance — you can be open to a charge of defamation. But just mentioning them in a positive or neutral sense is not a problem. Lots of stories are set in real cities and towns, and mentioning places that actually exist in the town will make the story more real, especially to people who live there.

  9. Sierra says:

    So, I’m trying to right a book with the message of how suicide can affect (effect?) the ones close to the person. In this book i talk about how the person was found. Would I get in trouble for using the business Family Dollar as a recurring symbol, such as the symbol for death, even if I had a character enter the store and be treated with the utmost care from the employees?

    • If this is fiction, I would stay away from using the brand name in that case because you are introducing negative connotations. Instead just say “the dollar store,” lower case to indicate that it’s the generic term.

      But if this is is a true story and the store really was a Family Dollar store, then you could use it. You might still get a cease-and-desist letter from the corporate lawyer, but they are unlikely to win a judgement if what you report is the truth.

      (And in the phrase “how suicide can affect the ones close to the person,” you do need affect, which is the verb. Effect, in most cases, is a noun.)

  10. Linda says:

    This is a great article, thanks, Kristen! I have a few question about references in my novel:
    If I say someone is driving a Jeep, do I need to have something on the copyright page that states who owns the registered mark for that? Also, is it okay if one of my characters says that another character is a ‘Johnny Depp lookalike’?
    One last question: can one of my characters talk about what she has seen inside a museum in one of their exhibits? I’ve heard this is okay since it’s a open to the public, but wanted to get your opinion on that.

    Thank you!

    • Yes, all of those references are allowed.

      Remember to capitalize Jeep (as you did here) because it’s a brand name. Where people get in trouble with it is when they use “jeep” generically to refer to four-wheel-drive off-road vehicles.

      Celebrities understand that being in the public sphere means they get talked about. As long as your comment isn’t defamatory or implying that the celebrity endorses your work, you’re fine.

      Museums and art galleries would probably LOVE to have their exhibits written about. That’s free publicity for them. And yes, because it’s a public space, it’s open for public comment.

  11. Linda says:

    Kristen, thanks so much for answering my questions! I thought of a couple more, hope you don’t mind. The villain in my story owns a company and I’ve made up a fictitious name for him and the company. I’ve made up a company name that, as far as I can tell, isn’t being used. What are the chances that there is a company by that name that I’ve overlooked and the company contacts me and says that it shows them in a bad light? Does the ‘this is a work of fiction…’ blurb at the front of the book cover me? Also, would it be better to just use a fictitious first name of the guy instead of first and last name, or does it not matter? I’m probably overthinking this :-). My novel is in similar vein to John Grisham books where a person goes against an owner of a company who’s doing some not-so-up-and-up things. Thank you!!

    • Ask any time! That’s why I’m here.

      If you’ve done a Google search and haven’t turned up a real company with the same name, you’re good. False accusations of defamation are exactly what the “work of fiction” disclaimer is meant to deflect. As for the name of your villain, I don’t believe it matters. Even if you give him a super common name, the odds of another person with the same name turning up AND thinking that you’re writing about him are pretty slim.

  12. bryan-a minecrafter/bookwriter says:

    hello my name is bryan mcpeak and i want to know if i can have my character in a book i’m writing have and play call of duty: black ops 2 without treyarch’s permission since i cant find a contact us page

    • Yes, mentioning the game should be no different than mentioning a book or movie title. The only place you might get into trouble would be if the game were critical to the plot. That’s why the movie Wreck-It Ralph had its own made-up games and characters. But just mentioning the game in passing should be OK.

  13. Marion Day says:

    Hi – I have written a children’s picture book called Uncle Google. Uncle Google becomes one of the characters, as he is the search engine. Can I do this, and can by book title be Uncle Google. Or if not, Uncle Goo Gill?

    • In this case you run a very real risk of being slapped with a trademark violation charge. You are not just mentioning the product (as in, “The kids got online and used Google to do their homework,” which would be fine), but you are actually personifying the trademark and using it as a character in your story. The safest way to do this would be to invent your own unique name for a search engine. You might get away with Goo Gill, but I recommend double-checking with a trademark lawyer to be sure, because it is awfully close.

  14. Jill says:

    Thank you for such an informative thread! The characters in my novel go on a road trip, and I have them stopping at a handful of roadside attractions and museums (actual businesses). The places aren’t disparaged, although one sullen character doesn’t enjoy most of them. I include a fair amount of description and trivia about each place. Should I refer to these establishments by name? Or am I better off not using the names, and just toning down the specifics? I certainly don’t want to get sued because my characters visit a potato museum!

    Thanks!

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