Welcome to the second part Mention or Invention? in which I'm giving you some writerly advice concerning legal stuff. If you want to learn more about how (not) to use quotes in your novel check out last week's post. This week I'll be dipping into the wonderful world of brand names and ... well, names in general.
So what about brand names then? If your main protagonists loves his Coca Cola it's perfectly ok to mention it. As far as I can see you can even mention that he prefers it to Pepsi Cola. Yet you should be aware of so called trademark defamation. If you falsely depict a certain brand name product as being eg poisonous the manufacturer could (in theory) complain. I have no clue how often this kind of thing really happens and what the possible outcome might be in such a case. Ultimately the manufacturer would need to prove that readers interpret this as real instead of fictitious, but do you, as an author, really want to test that theory? Invent your own brand and let it poison the town folk, and no harm done (well, expect for the town population which wasn't real in the first place).
Shouldn't I actually get paid by a manufacturer for a product placement in my book? Hahahahaaaaa ... yeah right! Though it's admittedly a neat idea, I'll grant you that.
And what about Harry Potter or Elizabeth Bennett making a cameo appearance? Errr ... the first case is a very bad idea (unless you want to help J.K. Rowling get even richer). Elizabeth on the other hand may be a guest at your dinner party anytime. Public domain, remember? More about Harry and Elizabeth in next week's edition, when I'll discuss fan fiction.
But how about one of your characters, last name being Potter, happening to name their child Harry? Names as such aren't copyrightable. Yet you should show some common sense and even if one of your characters has Potter as a last name, steer clear of Harry when it comes to naming their child. Even if nothing in the book points even remotely towards wizards, you can rest assured that if the name of a character is sufficiently well known, which Harry Potter certainly is, and readers are likely to associate it exclusively with a particular author's work and ... long story short, just don't use a name like this. Period. Some copyright owners will sue your socks off for even thinking a certain name without permission, so imagine how expensive things might get if you put those thoughts in print.
Let it be said, Ms Rowling pays good money for a truckload of lawyers who'll knock at your door within seconds after you mentioned everyone's favorite wizard's name. No, not Merlin (but there's a valid point there for sure).
Please note that I've approached this topic to the best of my knowledge. If you find that I misinterpreted anything or even stated something that is entirely wrong (I hope not), let me know so I can remove or amend the offending statement!