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To what extent can you use locations, businesses, etc. from the real world in fiction? I know someone cannot copyright a city, but what about a particular location in the city that's private. Can I talk about the Denver Convention Center and use the actual building layout in a novel? Can I use a particular business, say Hacienda Colorado, in a book?

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Businesses aren't copyrighted, they're trademarked. – Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 0:36
The answers might be different for Denver Convention center and Hacienda Colorado. One is a public place, the other is a private business. – Tom Au Apr 8 '15 at 21:40
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Use of trademarked names in fiction does not violate intellectual property laws. There are a couple of things to be wary of nonetheless.

Be careful with the light in which you depict real businesses. As explained here, if you have a character die from a bad hamburger at Burger King or hurt himself because of a defective pair of Reeboks, then prepare for a libel suit.

Similarly, as discussed here, don't turn a trademarked brand name into a verb or a non-proper noun (which lawyers call trademark dilution). In other words, don't have characters "hoovering the living room," "drinking a coke," or "googling their names." Instead, make sure they're "vacuuming the living room with Hoover's wonderful appliance," "enjoying a Coca-Cola," or "performing a search on their names using that awesome Google." Or better yet, stick to vacuum cleaner, soft drink, and search engine. :)

As long as the portrayal is innocuous, and brand names are capitalized and not "genericized," there is no harm and no need for any kind of acknowledgment.

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Generally, if publishers want trademark acknowledgment page, they'll put it together. It's one of my jobs as an editor for two of the houses I work for. So it's not something an author really needs to worry about. – Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 2:31
Also, it is good to have common, day to day stuff mentioned in books. Imagine in a hundred, three hundred years. People could have an edition of the book with annotations, explaining that "Xerox" was a brand for a popular photocopying machine. And maybe even explaining what a "photocopy" is. People could be running to the Encyclopedia (or whatever source of information) to get a better picture of our time! – iajrz Mar 22 '11 at 11:33
I can understand and appreciate the explanations used above (and that this posting is quite old) but aren't "googling" and "xerox/xeroxing" the accepted equivalent of verbs by now (2016)? One doesn't see people described as xeroxing something so much anymore, but almost every day I read authors/journalists explaining that "anyone can Google" something to discover the point they're making. – Gryphonisle Apr 9 at 19:22

In fiction writing, it is common place to use real life businesses and location. It's also becoming common place to include a section in books that tells the reader who owns the trademark to those businesses. If you don't acknowledge trademarks, you can open yourself to lawsuits from businesses who are trying to protect their trademarks. If a business doesn't protect their trademark, they can lose it.

Also, if you're using real life businesses or people - be very careful what you say. If you say negative things about them or untrue things, you can open yourself up to libel lawsuits as well. (The bigger the company, the bigger the legal department they have.)

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@Ralph In what types of books have you seen a section telling the reader who owns the trademarks to businesses mentioned in the book? – Kelly C Hess Mar 22 '11 at 0:50
Fiction novels. All of the publishers I edit for require a Trademark Acknowledgment page in the beginning of each book. We have to let people know who owns the trademark for McDonalds or iPod or Vaseline and things like that. – Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 0:52
@Ralph How interesting. I have never noticed that. Is it for situations where the product plays a significant role in the story, or is it simply any brand name that gets mentioned? And what is the rationale for it? – Kelly C Hess Mar 22 '11 at 1:00
For any brand name that gets mentioned. It's to stop businesses and lawyers from going after the publishers. Businesses have to take steps to protect their trademarks and put a stop to trademark infringement or they can risk losing their trademark - like Band Aid and Hoover did. By acknowledging that the companies own the trademarks, they save themselves a lot of headaches. – Ralph Gallagher Mar 22 '11 at 1:14
Franz Kafka and George Orwell would cry for envy that they had failed to mention this kind of freedom of speech. – Nerevar Mar 22 '11 at 7:14

Another technique, specifically for fiction, not mentioned above is to create a fake brand from the ground up. A perfect example is Toy Story's "Pizza Planet." It clearly paints a picture reminiscent of Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza and just kid-laden arcades in general. But it does so by creating something unique, rather than just changing/genericizing the name of something that already exists. Though, if it is a rather different / hodgepodge concept, it may take up a lot of page-time (as Pizza Planet did) fleshing out its intricacies. So make sure its importance in the story is directly proportionate to its complexity/difference from what the reader is familiar with.

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