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An Honest Question about trademarks

Posted: Mon Jun 22, 2015 8:37 pm
by Penman Bland
I have a concern, and I wanted to throw in in front of a group of writers with more experience. I'm also trying to formulate it as a comprehensible question, so bear with me.

We live in an environment where trademarks are getting applied to a lot of stuff, and I'm wondering just how worried authors are/should be about such things.

One example that comes to mind-- Starbucks. There's the every-waxing coffee house, of course, but there's also the character in Battlestar Galactica (which if you're old like me you will probably be thinking of two different actors). Obviously, the estate of Herman Melville hasn't taken an interest in this, but did the latter-day version of BG have to make any deals with the coffee conglomerate for the use of the name?

More to the point, if I'm writing a fictional piece, do I need to be concerned if I want to ground my work in reality with a line like "She stepped out of the Starbucks at the corner of 8th and Main and was instantly devoured by the feral children"? Or, Saks, or any other particular establishment?

To some degree, I realize that the problem can be stepped around by avoidance ("She stepped out of the Stellar's Sealion Teas..."), but if one can't do that without the whole story collapsing... must one? If the whole axle upon which the narrative turns is the copyrighted phrase, and changing it render the story a bit of a nonsense, what latitude do we have? As a relatively concrete, real world example, did Mel Tillis have some special dispensation to use the title "Coca-Cola Cowboy" for his song, which seems to not be particularly positive in its use of that phrase? It is, after all, not about the actual beverage....

Re: An Honest Question about trademarks

Posted: Mon Jun 22, 2015 9:58 pm
by Algernon Sydney is Dead
I'm pretty sure that even with the uber 'ucked-up IP laws, that most of us now suffer under, that this is okay. You can casually mention trademarks -- as long as you aren't parlaying that trademark into financial value.
Just don't be abusive about it (thinly disguised libel, for example) and you should be alright.

My advice is to write like the wind and not sweat it. If (and it's a humongous if) you attract a pack of legal-beagles, and your mentions were in good faith, you can ream the company in the court of public opinion.

(Also we need more martyrs to die on the cross, so that the surviving public is outraged enough to finally force reform of our insane copyright/trademark/patent systems. :twisted: )

Re: An Honest Question about trademarks

Posted: Tue Jun 23, 2015 10:05 pm
by Penman Bland
Martyrdom, eh? I understand some fellows have built a real career on it. ;)

Sensible advice, ASID. I'll get the thing that prompted the question chipped into a shape that people can look at and thrown onto the appropriate forum

Re: An Honest Question about trademarks

Posted: Wed Jun 24, 2015 2:26 am
by strawman
Ah, good. It's been too long since I got to shout with the mob, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Re: An Honest Question about trademarks

Posted: Sat Jun 27, 2015 3:21 pm
by SpareInch
I'm no lawyer, and know even less of the American system, but a Trademark is only intended to protect a company from other people trading on it's good name. You can write stories with Starbucks in them, and many writers do, but if you opened your own coffee shop, you couldn't call it Starbuck's. Unless you actually had a Starbuck's franchise, of course.

Any less pragmatic approach would get very silly indeed. For example, the oldest trademark registered in The UK is that of Bass Breweries. It is a red equilateral triangle... Just that... Nothing else. It usually has the word Bass written over it, but the trademark is just the triangle. Could you imagine a world where nobody was allowed to draw triangles and colour them in red?