Hitting the Mark

A little R with a circle around it—and a world of questions attached: Here's what you need to know about using brand names in your stories.
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You want your story or novel to be as realistic as possible, right? So it might seem appropriate for your character, Bud (who likes his fair share of beer), to have a certain favorite brand. But then, you wonder, is it legal to include the name brand in your writing? You begin to imagine faceless men from a large corporation dressed in impeccable suits, knocking on your front door, ready to serve you papers. Suddenly, your story comes to a screeching halt.

A trademark is a symbol, word, picture, phrase or any combination of these that a company uses to associate itself with its product. Although symbols and designs may also be trademarked, words are the most common form. Companies want to keep their trademarks viable to make sure there's no question as to who owns them.

What you should know is this: You can use a trademark in your story. But while it's legal to have your character drink such-and-such beverage, you'll have to respect certain guidelines to steer clear of that hair-raising word—infringement.

To avoid misleading readers about company sponsorship or ownership, don't overuse the trademark in your text. Also, spell the trademark correctly and don't alter it in any way. That means no hyphenation, pluralization or abbreviation. Finally, trademarks must stand out from the rest of the text—capitalizing the word is sufficient, and it's the least intrusive method.

The ® means that the company has registered the trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, also known as the USPTO, in Washington, D.C. A trademark remains registered for 20 years, after which it may be renewed. If you see a ™ beside an item, this denotes an unregistered trademark, but the company using it still has exclusive rights to the trademark. (For more information on symbols and definitions, visit the International Trademark Association at www.inta.org.)

It's not necessary to include the ® beside a trademark, even if it occupies a place of high visibility, as in a heading or title (think of such books as The Devil Wears Prada). In all other references following, it's not necessary to include the symbol, but you'll still need to set it apart from other text by capitalizing it. And should you decide to use a recurring trademark in your novel, it would be wise to include a disclaimer stating that the trademark is being used without sponsorship and/or without permission of the trademark owner.

When you use a trademark in your story, make sure you do so responsibly. Don't pepper every page of your story with its use and be sure to spell it correctly and capitalize it. And, more important, don't fear the men in impeccable suits.

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