Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Past Is Not Dead. It's Not Even OMG, Justin Beiber!!!

I have a question about using famous names and brands in works of fiction.
If a character is a huge fan of, say, Rod Stewart, or the specific show The Twilight Zone or the Detroit Lions football team, is it legal to namecheck the real band/show/organization?
Yes.

I wouldn't make Rod Stewart a character, but he would be the object of a character's fandom. (Maybe not the most marketable example, I just realized. Anyhow.). Could I quote his lyrics?
Bits of them.

Or quote from a real movie or tv show?
Short quotes.

It feels kind of cheesy to me when writers make up a fake famous person but now that the issue has come up in my own writing (which I hope to publish) I wonder if it's done for legal reasons.
Sometimes, but more likely (as in your Rod Stewart example) it's for the reason that you're writing for people to whom the 1990s are history. The past may not be dead, but the present has a really short attention span. Why date your book to its detriment?

Still, unless your plot hinges on the use of a particular artist / song / movie / tv show, this is not the sort of thing that will stop your manuscript being acquired. You may need to have a conversation with your editor (and maybe the publisher's legal department) about this, though.

16 comments:

KatieO said...

An author also needs to make sure the audience will "get" the reference. No impact if there's no relevance.

There was a recent conversation on a writer's loop about whether YA readers would understand a reference to "Leave it to Beaver"... a quick unscientific poll showed that no, today's kids don't know much of anything about that show.

Jonathan Walker said...

As far as I am aware, even the shortest conceivable excerpts from lyrics need formal permission, which is almost never granted free, and indeed is almost always prohibitively expensive. This is because a) a song lyric, as with a poem, contains a very limited number of words, and therefore even a one-line quotation constitutes a significant proportion of the total length; b) because of this, and because a novel is not a review, fair use does not apply; and c) the copyright in most lyrics is protected by lawyers employed by corporations, rather than by creators.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

It's actually an incredibly annoying - and unfair - aspect of copyright culture, one that has nothing to do with creators' rights, and everything to do with the same kind of psychotically over-zealous protectionism that will keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain until hell freezes over.

Clémentine B said...

very interesting, thanks for that. My agent made me take out all references to real characters, including extremely famous people like Keira Knightley, so it wouldn't date the book. It wouldn't have occurred to me before she suggested it, but now I completely understand the idea.

Anonymous said...

I just read and enjoyed Donna Gephart's How to Survive Middle School. The plot hinges on the character's fascination with and desire to emulate Jon Stewart.

I'm a huge fan of that comedian too. But I did wonder how the book would do with a reader unfamiliar with Mr. Stewart's work, or in a few years if, God forbid, Mr. Stewart should cease to be in the national spotlight.

Kate Coombs said...

Can't remember who it was, but some blogger recently commented that YA authors tend to artificially make their teen characters fans of bands that just happen to have been popular during the author's teen years! I would just add that teen/pop culture gets dated even faster than other aspects of society, so why go there?

Ishta Mercurio said...

This makes sense, but it's something I wouldn't even have thought of. Thanks for the reminder.

150 said...

Re: Anon 9:34's comment, and very slightly relevant to the conversation: When I read Lizard Music I did not have the first earthly idea who Walter Cronkite was, but got the gist of it from the text and adored the book anyway.

Julia Karr said...

I make reference in my sci-fi/dystopian novel to a '60s musician, referencing him as an historical figure. It makes no difference to the plot - but does underscore one character's love of "ancient" music. It did not bother my agent or editor. Which makes me think that intent and reason for the reference is really important, too.

Anonymous said...

I believe Jonathan Walker is correct in his analysis. I would not use lyrics in a work of fiction without the permission of the copyright holder.

Keren David said...

Yes, if you quote song lyrics you have to pay hefty copyright fees.

clutz buffrap said...

What's so cheesy about made up famous people? Generally I find fictional celebrities preferable to the real ones. More interesting, anyway.

Norma Beishir said...

There was a book, not yet published, on Authonomy that focused on Rose from Titanic. I asked the author if he'd gotten permission to use the character. He said he planned to get it AFTER he sold the book....

bzyglowi said...

Hmm, I have a similar question. I've been working on a story and found myself inspired by a lot of the lyrics of a specific singer. How weird/problematic would it be for me to start chapters off with a few lines from various lyrics (with complete citation on another page either at the front or back of the book)? It's not something that would be essential, but it does contribute something, at least in my mind. What are the potential legal complications for something like that?

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