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Let's say I'm writing a novel set in the future, clearly on Earth, with all the history that has happened through today. Obviously in the real world, there are numerous works of fiction that are popular and widely read. How much can I talk about them?

I'm talking about a scenario like this:

An arms company in the future is run by someone who is fascinated with the fictional arms in a sci-fi series (say, Star Wars, Star Trek, or Halo). They produce some starships that look exactly like the fictional ones (or perhaps the design is just clearly influenced by the fictional ones)

Can I do something like this (both legally and story-wise)? How should I phrase the descriptions?

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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Legally, if you merely mention series names and if you write your own fairly-general descriptions of spaceships (eg, “the ship was an overgrown pancake, with giant tailfins grafted on”) then it will be adequate to offer the usual disclaimers that “X is a registered trademark of Y” and “This work is not a product of or affiliated with P, Q, R”. Here are two examples of disclaimers:

Star Wars is a registered trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. The LucasArts logo is a registered trademark of LucasArts Entertainment Company. LucasArts is a trademark of LucasArts Entertainment Company. (starwarsmush.com)

Disclaimer: This site is in no way sponsored or endorsed by George Lucas, Lucasfilm Limited, LucasArts Entertainment Company, or any affiliates. [...] Star Wars is a registered trademark of Lucasfilm Limited [...] (theswca.com)

If, however, you plan to include pictures or if particular spaceship details are critical to your plot, then you should get permission in advance from the franchise owner. In many cases, if your use is well-delimited, won't deprecate the franchise, and won't impinge on their profits, permission will be granted without charge. If you obtain permission to use certain pictures or descriptions, include an “X is used by permission of Y” disclaimer in the novel's endpapers. (Edit: Many books include disclaimers at the foot of the copyright page, ie on the page for “copyright notice, legal notices, publication information, printing history, cataloguing information from a national library, and an ISBN that uniquely identifies the work”. Some books, and some web pages, place that information in a colophon.)

If a more-than-nominal fee is required, then look elsewhere or (as they did in Galaxy Quest) make up an original parody.

Edit: If you want to use specific names like “Star Wars' Imperial-II class Star Destroyers”, it is reasonable to seek permission to do so. Note that the effect on the story due to using specific names like that may be good or bad. If your work is aimed at avid fans, exact names may help. If the audience is more general, having the exact name is less important than having a description; for example “Emperor-class Super Star Destroyer” (a made-up name) seems less useful than “the Emperor's 19km-long, 10-billion-tonne, Star Buster flagship”.

Overly-specific names have problems: First, they rapidly become dated, and after not many years may make the story look old-fashioned or obscure. Second, without some work in setting up the background, they are implausible within the framework of a story that's set far in the future. For example, if the story is set 500 years from now but revolves around a handful of names from the 20th century instead of names from the 25th century, the present-day reader is entitled to disbelieve completely. For example, when do the toys that people are nostalgic about today date from? Mostly from the latter half of the 20th century. People nostalgic about toys from the 15th century are few and far between.

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So if I mentioned that "the ship bore a marked resemblance to Star Wars' Imperial-II class Star Destroyers", that would be okay? Where would the "disclaimer" go? –  SSumner Jul 18 '13 at 21:01
@SSumner, see Edit items in answer –  jwpat7 Jul 18 '13 at 22:26
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I'll ditto jwpat7 on the legal details, but I'd add, Why do you want to do this?

As jwpat7 says in his last paragraph, it seems unlikely that people 500 years from now will model their starships after 21st century fiction. I'm hard pressed to think of a case where a 21st century designer of airplanes looked for descriptions of flying machines in 15th century literature and tried to model them. If you think about it, it would likely be very difficult if you wanted to. Airplanes look the way they do mostly because this design is functional. Trying to make a working airplane that looks like Greek drawing of Icarus would be very difficult and impractical. I rather suspect that, if and when humanity does build starships, however their drives work, etc, will lead to them looking very different from anything on Star Trek or Star Wars, because of course the people who made those programs have absolutely no idea how a real star drive might work and what it might look like.

From a literary point of view, if you're doing this just as a way to avoid having to make up your own descriptions, (a) that's just lazy, and (b) it does nothing for readers who haven't seen the movie you reference and remember these details. You can't assume that every reader will have seen your favorite movies, or will remember which space ship was the Star Destroyer and which was the Night Fury or whatever.

If you're doing this because you love those movies and want to pay them homage, I'd say you're better off to create your own universe and your own characters rather than try to piggyback on someone else's. It's one thing to subtly steal ideas, it's quite another to be blatant about it.

I think a little homage in a fiction story is cool. Like, I saw an sf movie once where at the beginning we see the starship go by and the name painted on the side is "LEINSTER" -- the name of a well-known sf writer. I thought that was cute and clever. But that was it: they didn't dwell on it, they didn't even mention it further. They just tossed it in. Because if you dwell on it, it just makes it look like you're trying to bask in someone else's glory.

All that said, of course I know nothing of your story beyond what you say in your question. Maybe you have a good reason for it and it works in your story.

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I hadn't considered those points. If it makes any difference, the reason they are designed that way is the designer was from the 21st century but was in cryosleep for hundreds of years. But I will think about these points. Great answer –  SSumner Jul 19 '13 at 15:43
Re “I'm hard pressed to think of a case where a 21st century designer of airplanes looked for descriptions of flying machines in 15th century literature”, google for model of da vinci flying machine and note the hundreds of kits, plans, prints, etc. Da Vinci lived 1452–1519. –  jwpat7 Jul 20 '13 at 7:47
@jwpat7 I actually thought about DaVinci's flying machine when I wrote that. But DaVinci was not writing a work of fiction but a serious work of science. In any case, I don't doubt that there are scale models, etc, of DaVinci's machine, I wouldn't be surprised if someone's tried to make a full-scale working model. But Boeing and Airbus and Sikorsky et al do not model their aircraft based on DaVinci's design. Someone might try it for scientific or historical curiosity, but not as a serious commercial or military aircraft design. And again, DaVinci was trying to design a practical flying ... –  Jay Jul 22 '13 at 13:17
machine, not write a work of fiction. –  Jay Jul 22 '13 at 13:17
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I recently read Amazon.com: Lacuna: Demons of the Void eBook: David Adams: Kindle Store : http://www.amazon.com/Lacuna-Demons-Void-ebook/dp/B006RZNR3Y/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

In the story there is a very 'energetic' physicist that constantly is referencing "It's like right out of Star Trek" in some way or another. It was fitting as this is set just a few decades in Earths future so her being a fan makes perfect sense. It still jarred me from the story though and seems like an easy way out to explain something.

Another story I read described an important found tech artifact as "It looked like a lightsaber without the controls." This again was fitting as set in mostly modern day earth but still it jarred me from the story for some reason.

It could be a personal thing, but I'm not a fan of it. I'm dealing with it myself in my own project. It's hard to write a post-apocalyptic story and not have a character reference The Walking Dead or one of the other popular franchises rebuilding.

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