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.

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50 Comments

  1. 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

    1. 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. 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?

    1. 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?

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. 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?

    1. 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. 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.”

    1. 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. 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.

    1. Yes, you can certainly do that. On the copyright page of your book, you would put a statement like “Thing is a trademark of the Thing Corp.”

  8. 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?

    1. 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. 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?

    1. 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. 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!

    1. 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. 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!!

    1. 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

    1. 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. 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?

    1. 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.

      1. Thank-you so much. What about Swoogle as a made-up name. It would fit my story.

        1. I was a bit quick there. Swoogle is a search engine and not made up like I thought. Would Uncle Gurgle be okay?

          1. That might work, as long as there’s nothing else to tie it to Google (like their font or color scheme).

  14. 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!

    1. I think you’re safe. Most small businesses (including the potato museum) would appreciate the publicity!

  15. I wrote a children’s book that is based on an actual event. The story is part true, part imaginary. I used 2 product names and one character name in the story. They are not depicted in a negative way at all and the story is not about any of these products. However, they are depicted in the illustrations. Can I do this?

    1. This is tricky. If it were just the product names, I would say there’s no problem. But when you get into illustrations, you run into an area of trademark law called “trade dress,” which has to do with the way products look, e.g., the shape of a Coke bottle, the ribbon stripe, and the logo font. I would run the illustrations by a trademark lawyer before going to press. It’s likely that the trademark holder will see it as free advertising and not object, but you never know. Disney and Kellogg’s are reputed to be particularly vigilant about such things.

  16. Hey! So I know you probably haven’t looked at this in a while, but I hope you see this. For the past 3 and a half years, I’ve been working on a Post-Apocalyptic story set in either 2014 or 2017 (can’t decide, but it’s set in modern day) and I wanted to include something in the first book about Wal-Mart and how they handled “the fall” (the apocalypse) I do NOT have to include this in my story, as my story has lots of other factors in play. However I believe incorporating Wal-Mart in this way would be great for the story. Basically, a few months before the fall, the Chinese just significantly buff their prices up to where things at Wal-Mart become more expensive. In this fictions world, Wal-Marts aren’t a HUGE part of the story or anything like that, but basically what I’ve gathered is that (in real life) whenever the economy isn’t doing the best, a Wal-Mart is placed there to buff the economy. Therefore, in a world where a lot of what we purchase is from China, if they buff their prices (against their will, because it would be impossible to buy things for a lot of money and sell them for extremely cheap and still make money) then the economy in certain areas of the USA would plummet. I’m sorry for the long winded question, but essentially, can I use Wal-Mart in this light? Because it kind of draws the line between Negative and them being a victim to something. Maybe I could reference them as a corporation doing whatever they can to prevent what happened? Or should I just come up with an obvious substitute for the supermarket? I’d appreciate a response, I respect you and your work very much!

    P.S sorry for any typos. I’m in the car on my way to a city that is a focal point in my novel 🙂

    1. Keegan, I apologize for the delayed response. While using Wal-Mart would lend a sense of reality to your story, the storyline is enough of a downer that I think it’s better in this case to invent your own name for a discount store, rather than risk getting a cease-and-desist letter. Especially since your story is set in an alternate reality, that will help make the storyworld all your own.

  17. Dear Kristen, I stumbled across this site by accident and am very impressed with your expertise and generosity in answering so many questions. All very pertinent to every author. Many thanks indeed.
    I wonder if you would mind my asking a question too, please?
    I’m writing a Christmas-themed novel which includes Santa, his wife (I’ve made up her name), the elves & the North Pole, with a few additions and my own take on the setting. I’ve been advised not to use the names of the reindeer. Is there anything else you think I should be careful of? Best regards, Haley.

    1. Haley — Thanks for your kind comments!

      The names of the reindeer were coined by Clement Clarke Moore in his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which is in the public domain. So those should be fair game. I nevertheless recommend inventing your own names for them, just to make the story your own. I also recommend you look out for elements creeping into your manuscript that you may have absorbed from TV specials and movies, especially the ones that were around when you were young. Sometimes things that have been around that long feel legendary, but those would still be covered by copyright because they were produced within the last 70 years. (Copyright is life of the author plus 70 years.) Good luck with your story!

  18. Thank you very much, Kristen. I look forward to reading your future words of wisdom! All the best to you. Haley x

  19. I’m working on writing a book about a child prodigy who is finish college at 19. In the first couple chapters I talk about a deal with an electric car company (Tesla) where my character has worked with them to improve their vehicles since 2014 to present day (2018) and in return said company pays for his schooling and gives him one of their vehicles to field test his innovations.
    Since this mention of the company is not just a passing comment would it be better to make a fictitious company for this purpose or am I safe in referring to the company directly?

    1. Since you are giving specific dates that are in the past and inserting your character into a high-profile company in a specific and influential way, I would make up a fake company name. If we were talking about an assembly-line worker at Dodge, I wouldn’t worry about it, but because Tesla is so innovative and often in the news these days, I would not risk getting a cease-and-desist letter from them.

  20. I am writing a fiction novel which is set in the present day. The story revolves around a couple who keep having difficulties thrown in their path. For one scene in the book, I am having the couple be visited by a group of friends. I was wondering if during this encounter I could not only mention the name Dungeons & Dragons but also describe a session. It is meant to be a suspense break where the group is having a good time and indulging in a hobby they haven’t had time for. Can I do this or should I rename the product into something imaginary?

    1. Isis — That’s absolutely a fair use of the name. Sounds like an interesting story, too!

  21. Hello Kristen,
    I came across this post while searching for an answer to my question about permissions. I am writing a non-fiction book about researching your family history on your own. I wanted to list several websites that I recommend to do your own research. Do I need to ask permission from websites like Ancestry.com or familysearch.org to use their names? I am not putting any quotes or images from their pages, just referencing their names, only in a good light. I am recommending them! Can you help me out? You seem to be very knowledgeable in this, and I can’t find any specifics on my internet searches.
    Thanks!

    1. David, no, you don’t need permissions to make recommendations or give reviews. Especially if it’s a good review!

  22. Hi Kristen,
    I have a series of children’s books that are oral health related. My newest book is not released yet and I thought I should make sure it’s okay. It’s about sugar bugs and an adventure they go on. One of the sugar bugs is named Rolo – is it okay to use this name as it’s a candy?

    1. I would stay away from using Rolo in this context, but you might get away with Rollo, since it’s spelled differently. Rollo is a Norse name that dates at least to the 10th century, according to this page: https://www.behindthename.com/name/rollo

      1. I’m sure I’m way behind the curve here, but I have absolutely no idea what Rolo is…

        1. Ha! No worries. It’s a chocolate-covered caramel.

  23. Hi! I’m trying to write a post-apocalyptic story, and the opening scene is a comedic dramatization of a main character trying to steal a bottle of Squirt from the soda shop her friend lives in. She’s caught by him, and reluctantly pays for it. She’s kind of obsessed with the stuff, and it will be brought up once or twice more in the book. Is this okay, since it’s portraying Squirt in a positive light, or does the “theft” make it not okay?

    1. I think they’d see that as great product placement. The theft reflects on the character, not on the object of her desire.

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