Character Copyright

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 22 2011

What is the proper use/copyright requirements if I want to allude to a copyrighted character in another work? Can I do it? Specifically, I’m looking at a single reference – as in a single line of dialog, something like “You’re quite the Nancy Drew, aren’t you?” (this is an example, not a quote). Am I required to get permission to use the term “Nancy Drew” from the copyright holder (I am referencing their description of the character, I suppose, but it’s a term that’s commonly used), or is noting the copyright holder enough?

Copyright becomes an issue if you plan to use that character in your work. If, for example, you want Nancy Drew herself to be a character in your work. To talk about a pop culture reference, whether it’s a character, a famous person, a book, a movie, etc., is not a copyright issue. Therefore your example is not a copyright issue at all, and you don’t need to reference the copyright holder or obtain permission.


13 responses to “Character Copyright”

  1. Thank you for the information. Does the same hold true for products? Can a scene take place in a Starbucks, for example? Or does it need to be a coffee shop that just happens to sell travel coffee mugs, cd's, have a greeen logo and offer grande lattes?

  2. Avatar Norma Jean says:

    What about music references? I'm assuming when it comes to naming musicians/bands it works the same way.

    Specifically though, what about using the lyrics in a song? Would we need permission for this?

  3. Avatar Ben says:

    What about Adam Levin, who used Philip Roth as a character of his books, could it have created problems?

  4. Avatar T.J. says:

    To kind of copy off of Norma Jean's question: I've heard that song lyrics are difficult to use and should be avoided. But based off what you said if I had a character go to a Rolling Stones concert, that'd be okay?

  5. I'd often wondered about this. Thanks!

  6. Avatar ryan field says:

    This really is one of those times where having a publisher and good copyeditor does come in handy. They will tell you, during edits, what can and cannot be used without permission.

  7. Thanks for this topic. I recently had one of my characters quote a movie character – the infamous line, “I don’t think were in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

    I also am interested on how it works with song lyrics. I have another character sing a song from back in the 1970’s. I worked it in and gave credit to the singer/songwriter in the text leading up to where the character starts singing the lyrics to song.

  8. Avatar jfaust says:

    Keep in mind that the answers to some of these questions are going to come down to what a publisher and/or the publisher's legal team will allow. Here are my answers though:

    Yes a scene can take place in a Starbucks, McDonalds, or Gap

    It's okay to name musicians or bands and have your character go to a Rolling Stones concert. Song lyrics are very tricky and you definitely need permission to use them. Personally, I would avoid song lyrics.

    I don't know about Adam Levin using Philip Roth. He might have gotten permission and yes, I suppose Philip Roth could have sued had he been unhappy or felt it defamed his character.


  9. Avatar Andrew says:

    I recently had one of my characters quote a movie character – the infamous line, “I don’t think were in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

    What's infamous about that line? "Infamous" means "deserving of an evil reputation."

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    This isn't a COPYRIGHT question; it's a TRADEMARK question. You can't copyright a name or idea.

    You can use trademarked words in your book so long as they are not being used to SELL the product. Can't be on the cover or in the title or press material, etc.

    An off-handed reference to Nancy Drew or any other trademarked thing is no problem.

  11. We should also note that it would be perfectly fine for you to use Nancy Drew as a character in your novel if those books were in the public domain. This is why Alan Moore could recycle characters from 19th-century classics in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Seth Grahame-Smith could write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

    Otherwise, yeah, you can totally make a reference to a character/product/band/whatever without gaining permission. You might run into defamation issues if you're really negative, though.

  12. I'm going to take this in a slightly different direction. I agree with the Bookends comments about how these are problems for the Legal Department. But burning questions about whether or not you can set a scene in Starbucks, or quote an oft-quoted Wizard of Oz line speak to something else, for me.

    These are problems that can easily be addressed by someone else, after the book is written, re-written, polished, Agented and sent out for sale. Not something to worry about during drafting. Or pre-drafting. Or revisions. And I know that when I become overly worried about such things, I'm using it as a way to avoid writing the dreaded Middle, or a difficult scene, or revising.

    I would say, leave this stuff to the experts. Concentrate on the story, your characters. Work on "Being More Awesome". The Starbucks trademarks will take care of themselves. Or rather, somone with expertise in the matter will take care of it, and you'll THINK it took care of itself.

  13. Another related question: Can you give your character the same name as a famous character? Using the Nancy Drew example, if your MC's parents were detectives with the last name Drew and they had a really lame sense of humour, could they name their daughter Nancy? I don't see why anyone would want to have their main character named Nancy Drew, but I'm just curious.