The Complexity of Copyright and Trademarks

It’s something that no author, and definitely no publisher, wants to deal with. Truth be told, I hadn’t given it much thought until recently. The general belief is that, if you’re writing original fiction, you’re good to go. But it’s not always that black and white. I’m not talking about the mess that is book piracy, that’s a completely different topic for another day. I’m talking about the mess that is incorporating something copyrighted or trademarked (specifically in the case of sports related fiction) into your story.

Recently I’ve made the decision to extend my writing sphere into the world of sports. Hockey, in particular. I ran up against the question: Do I have to create an entire league of fake teams? Can I even use the NHL title? Can I mention real hockey players? I knew going in that my main characters, and subsequently any teams with big parts, would have to be fictional. I also knew that I couldn’t have real life people doing things that shined them in a bad light in my story. In the end, I decided it was easiest just to create an entirely fake roster of teams and players. As I’m not the best when it comes to naming things like teams, or even people (it takes me unbelievably long), easiest is a relative term. But I figured, why should I risk stepping on someone’s toes?

Now onto copyright and the mighty question of: is this stolen? I’m going to bring up my last article here, on the notion of publishers wanting the tried and true story. If multiple books are coming out, all with the same basic concept, that’s not copyright. Even though many of them may have taken their influence, or even have a foundation built from these original novels, the characters and plot are different. There’s nothing wrong with using a general idea, as long as you don’t take the rest of someone else’s story with you. There’s a difference between ‘wow, that’s vaguely similar’ and ‘wow, that’s exactly the same’.

That’s looking at things from the bigger picture, but what about the tiny picture? What if you want to incorporate a recipe you found into your story? Or your favorite song lyrics? What if you’re quoting a speech you heard or a funny line from a TV show? As a writer, figuring out what does and does not constitute copyright can be a pain when you’re in the zone and you want to have an upbeat scene with your character singing and dancing.

If you’re already working with a publisher, or connected to an author group, ask them for advice before you get invested in a quote or other potentially copyrighted material. Most publishers will have a specific policy to control copyright and the guidelines will be very clear. I myself am dealing with the question of the recipe conundrum right now. Respecting copyright and trademarks is part of a writer’s job, and it’s not always a clear cut or easy one.

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