Using Real Places, Products in Your Novel? Name, But Don’t Defame

A question that comes up fairly regularly in the mailbox here at IU is whether or not authors can use brand names and place names in their novels. The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Ever heard of a book called, The Devil Wears Prada? Or the novel Sex and the City, which, like the TV show that came after, spoke endlessly of name brands?

Now, yes is the simple answer. But it’s more nuanced than just yes. Generally, if you have a contemporary novel, written in the real world, people are going to exist in it. They are going to go real places. If they live in Washington, DC, they may look out their window and see the Washington Monument. They may visit a Panera Bread while listening to Cardi-B and wearing their Christian Louboutin red bottoms. They may even gawk at the tourists who pass by on a DC Duck Tour. And they should. Because these are all real things that can enrich the novel for readers and really set them in the place. Your characters are going to wear clothes and shoes and eat at restaurants. If they’re like most of us, they’re going to have sneakers that are a common brand: Nike, Adidas, Under Armour. That’s fine to do.

The reason people worry about using name brands and sometimes locations is because they are concerned they will be somehow be sued. Generally, brands can’t sue you for mentioning their product. In fact, name brands love being in your books. They love being portrayed positively in anything that reaches lots of people. So much so that they pay for product placement in movies and TV shows (but that’s another story altogether).

What name brands don’t like is being disparaged. So, if your book wants to have a murderer secretly disposing of his victims in the grinder at the burger joint he works at, then it’s best to use a fake place. Using a name-brand burger joint is opening yourself up to trouble because it unfairly disparages them (suggesting their procedures are so lax that serial killers can dump bodies into their food is disparaging).

Think twice about using the name of a real restaurant or store if your character finds this moldy lemon there…

So, a quick rule of thumb to remember is name, but don’t defame. If your character eats a Big Mac and then visits the Louvre, that’s fine. But you may want to rethink having the character getting sick off two all-beef patties with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun.

Real places are easier to use, often because they are public, government run, and open for public use. For example, The DaVinci Code is set partly in the famous Louvre art museum. In fact, lots of heist books and films talk about robberies at famous places (museums and gold depositories like Fort Knox). It’s fine to set scenes in famous locales as a backdrop. Everything from Paris’ Eiffel Tower to New York’s Metropolitan Museum are used as settings in books. One reason these locales are used is because they immediately offer setting. They’re famous spots that people have heard of, which helps both the reader and author in envisioning the place.

Public, famous venues are fair game. However, if you’re setting something in a real city, take care not to give your serial killer the address of a real home. People are entitled to a right to privacy and you publishing their address in a novel, so that they might be harassed by your readers, violates their right to privacy. So, it’s good to avoid using real addresses that are those of private citizens or places. The address your villain lives at in a real city should not be a real address. For example, No. 4 Privet Drive can’t be a real address, because it’s set in the fictional town of Little Whinging, so Harry Potter fans aren’t beating down anyone’s doors looking for those wicked Dursleys who so mistreated Harry. If you’re considering using a specific address (street and number) when you’re in a real city, Google it to make sure it doesn’t actually exist in the city. Using a general neighborhood that people are familiar with is fine, though (“They lived in a ten-million-dollar mansion in Beverly Hills.”) Saying they lived at 4 Privet Drive in Beverly Hills, if there were such an address, would not be cool. In addition to trying to avoid giving out people’s actual addresses by Googling it, it’s also good to include a disclaimer. You can find a list of disclaimers here on the Book Designer.

As far as using famous people in your works of fiction, it’s possible, but famous people are entitled to profit from their name and likeness, and you can’t write a book that trades on their fame or likeness for your profit. Saying in passing that a person is a huge Lebron James fan isn’t a big deal. Having a character who is a Lebron James look-alike who impersonates the famous basketball star, could be a problem. Actress Scarlett Johansson was as hardcore as the Black Widow character she plays when she successfully sued a French author who wrote a book about a ScarJo look alike. Ms. Johansson won her lawsuit in France. It’s not clear how this suit would have done in the US. The book was never translated to English or sold in US markets.

However, this article is speaking generally to how things work in the US. This is not staunch legal advice. These are some guidelines to help you figure out if you might have problem. If you think your use of people, places, or brands in your work of fiction might be problematic, definitely consult an attorney. Can’t afford an attorney? Check with your local arts council. Where I live (Maryland), they have a council for the arts that has attorneys available who can advise people on minor matters for small or no fee. Your jurisdiction may have something similar to help. You can also check our Legal Resource Page for other resources near you.

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

17 thoughts on “Using Real Places, Products in Your Novel? Name, But Don’t Defame”

    1. LOL. What’s interesting is there’s an author in a group I’m in, and she’s got this thing where she wants to be killed the most. Not literally (as in her person), but her name. So, other authors name a character after her in their books and kill her. Which just goes to show that there are people out there who want different things. The key point, though, is that she’s given her author friends permission to kill her within the pages of their novels.

  1. Thanks for sharing, your article cleared some doubts I still harbored.

    Brand names can be useful, sure. But, I must admit, when I come across a book full of such brand names, more often than not my interest tends to wane.

    Besides, twenty years from now descriptions relying heavily on brand names are most likely going to be difficult to understand. Instead, brilliant descriptions never present readers any trouble.

    This to say that sometimes the fact you can do something doesn’t mean you should =)

    1. It’s interesting that you mention too many brand names can be a turnoff. I have read some books like that (where I’ve been inundated to the point that I hate the vapid character who is so into brands). So, I get where you’re coming from. However, some readers love this. They are into brands and seeing all the names gives them a real sense of the character.

      I do believe in that old axiom of moderation in all things. I’m sure the best use of name brands is moderate to light.

  2. This is interesting.

    I use product names quite a bit – cars, a heater, food, beer, personal and bathroom products, clothing – because they can place the reader and remind them of the era in which the story is set. And that’s all it is.

    A Conray room heater would do that. So would Raro Apple & Apple Juice (‘with the juice of seven oranges and five apples’). I don’t see it as my job to parade labels.

    But …

    And I found this fascinating. A Kiwi author of illustrated children’s books had included in one of her works an aircraft in Air New Zealand livery (colours) on the ground at Queenstown Airport. It was art, not a photograph.

    Somewhere in the process someone else said: ‘Don’t you think you should ask the airline if it’s all right to use their branding and name?’

    The author didn’t think so. But the question nagged at her so she wrote to our national flag-carrier and asked them if they had any objection to their colours and name being used.

    They did. They said it was breaching copyright and infringing on their rights as rights-holders. They threatened legal action against her if she even mentioned the airline’s name.

    In the same book she had mentioned products of Cadbury, the chocolate-maker, and an illustration of a block of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate.

    At the time Cadbury had a plant in the South Island city of Dunedin – where she lived – and she thought it would be fun to have the artwork.

    She was astounded when Cadbury also said ‘no’. Not only that, the company’s policy, they told her, was to refuse to permit all mentions of their products in literature.

    So far, Cadbury – which are owned by an American multinational – haven’t come chasing after me …

    – Paul Corrigan

    1. That’s interesting, Paul. I will say that images are a different beast. Companies do have the right to use their images. Photos are generally copyrighted and you can’t just use someone else’s photograph.

      Certain images are the rights of the holder as well. You can’t just recreate Kermit the frog as painted by you and use him in a book. That’s sort of like celebrities having the right to decide how to use their likeness for profit. Even if you made the picture yourself, it’s their likeness.

      In terms of the copyright holder saying you can’t use their name in your book, I think they’re overreaching. Lawyers will do this from time to time, and assume that you will fold because they’re lawyers and you’re not. See this case where Taylor Swift’s lawyer sent a mean, nasty letter threatening to sue a blogger, and the person reached out to the ACLU, who set Taytay straight. Larger corporations, big celebrities, and others who can afford lawyers often use those lawyers to bully. But just because a lawyer threatens it doesn’t make it true.

      It sounds like the case you’re talking about is in Australia, and I am unfamiliar with Australian law. But that kind of threat wouldn’t fly in the US, if the reference to the company was fairly casual and not defamatory. That said, as I mentioned earlier, if you are using the name of someone else to propel your own work, you can run into legal problems. Also, art work is a very different animal than just a product name, so I can see the company getting in a snit.

  3. Thank you for the wonderful logical approach to using products in novels. I researched the products and weapons for my civil war novel, to make sure I referenced and named them correctly. Doing this adds to the story and makes it memorable. Even in fantasy it works, just think of the broom Harry rode, or the candies he ate and the butter beer he drank it helps to bring life to your story world.

  4. I love writing about places I know and if it’s a big city ( London ) just about anything could be happening and. Smaller places, suburbs and villages can be inspired by real places, but it’s easy to make up names that sound right and so easy to Google and check they don’t exist in real life, then you can have a murder in Milly’s Tearoom!

  5. Hi RJ,

    I see we’re practically neighbors (I live in Baltimore County). I appreciate the insights on this. I generally avoid brand names, but my wife has snuck a few in during editing, and I’ve kept them because they fit the context and added some life to the text. I have included three actual businesses in my Howard County mysteries so far: one a B&B out in Cumberland, one a restaurant in Columbia, and one (in HCM4, which is in progress) an art gallery in Ellicott City. I’ve sometimes thought of asking permission, but figured not enough people buy my books yet to make it worth worrying about. 😉

    I am reminded of something I used to see with some frequency in Writer’s Digest, too. Verious companies used to run ads there encouraging writers to properly mark any trademarked names they use in their writing. I don’t know that many writers every actually did this, but the general advice at that time was to play nice and use the TM mark where appropriate.

  6. Most interesting article. Thank you. In my only ‘faction’ novel, I used my old home and ‘stomping ground’ plus actual roads/landmarks and places, but not detrimentally. As the opening chapter reveals, an actual terrorist attack in London (2005) occurred on a particular train and I was extremely careful over the research work and details, but didn’t mention product names, etc., Common sense came into play, so my characters were fictitious.

  7. A very interesting article. I have used several places in my novel set in Cambridge UK but in a positive way. Great tips about what to avoid doing!

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