Real Businesses in the Fictional World

Somewhat inspired by the fictional businesses in the real world thread earlier…

A casual acquaintance is writing a book and has asked me to edit his manuscript. It’s atrocious. Aside from the hackneyed plot and horrendous grammar, there are tons of references to real world companies and celebrities. He doens’t miss an opportunity to drop a name. The main character works at Verizon, has a girlfriend who’s a party planner for Versace, meets Paris Hilton at Bungalow 8 etc. He also liberally uses entire song choruses to describe the protagonist’s state of mind. I’m not a professional editor by any means - just a halfway decent speller - but I’m wondering if it’s ok for him to use these celebs and business in a book that might get published, or whether or not he needs to have characters who work at Berizon and meet Claris Kilton. I doubt anyone other than his mother will buy this book, but I don’t want Verizon cutting of my phone service just in case.

Three issues:

  1. Use of trademarks – perfectly acceptable in this context. The tradmark holders will insist that you use them properly (e.g., “He xeroxed the form” would get a nasty letter), but freedom of Speech trumps trademark law in this case. You’ll get a letter, but it’s unlikely in the extreme that any actual action is taken (because they don’t want to run the risk of losing the trademark over something so trivial).

  2. Use of celebrity names – pretty much acceptable. If you make a well-known person an ax-murderer or child molester there is a chance of a lawsuite (your publisher’s lawyers will alert you), but just a mention is pretty much OK. Something like, “I spotted Paris Hilton leaving Versace,” is fine.

  3. Use of song lyrics – you need to get permission from the copyright holder. Some will grant it for free; others will ask for money. Usually, people leave out actual lyrics.

Lots of professional writers use real-life corporate names in their fiction–Stephen King and William Gibson are two that come to mind. Using song lyrics without copyright is okay as long as you don’t credit the entire song, though I’m sure someone has been sued for using a snippet–a pro editor would know for sure how much is okay, but if the manuscript is truly awful I doubt he could enlist the services of one. fair use