Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (21 Using Registered Trademarks and Brand Names)

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Using Registered Trademarks and Brand Names

When you’re writing and your character uses a Kleenex, you’ve just used a registered trademark. Normally in non-fiction or business writing, you’d see it this way: Kleenex® or Kleenex™. To avoid using a brand name, you could say your character used a “tissue.”

You do not have to use ® or ™ in fiction writing.

The words aspirin, escalator, phillips-head screw, zipper, yo-yo, and vaseline were once trademarked but have lost that protection. They acquired such market dominance that the brand names became genericized. Companies want their products to become popular—but not too popular!—since there’s a price to pay for that popularity.

Kleenex®, Xerox®, Band-Aid®, and Plexiglas® were once in danger of losing their trademark, but their owners have worked hard with aggressive corrective campaigns to retain them.

If you want to check if a word is trademarked, you can search the US Patent & Trademark Office’s federal registry site, called TESS, at http://tess2.uspto.gov . In Canada, you can use the Federal Trademark Search at: https://www.bdccanada1.com/bdc_order/index.php?website=index&page=commerce&op=options&packageId=48# but they do charge a fee.

In one interesting modern case, Google® has become synonymous with searching the Internet. Using a name as a verb lends itself to the risk of genericizing a trademark. The 2006 Oxford English Dictionary compromised by listing “Google” as a verb: “to use the Google® search engine.”

Now, what about using brand names in your fictional story?

Some of the authors who submit books to me have a character show up at a front door with their Esky filled to the brim with Cheb and taking out a Gauloises. Don’t know what those things are? Neither do I, some of the time! (That’s an Australian ice cooler filled to the brim with Czech beer and taking out a French cigarette.)

You’ve stumbled across the first problem with using brand names—readers in other countries won’t know what you’re talking about. While it’s perfectly legal to use brand names in a fictional story, you run the risk of readers not understanding your setting.

The other problem is, you’ve dated yourself. While any character can drive a sedan, if you use the specific model Plymouth Volare, you’ve stuck yourself right in the 1980s and few people in 2014 will be able to remember exactly what type of car a Volare was. And while your character might eat Spam, your readers will only think of junk email.

Brands change, go out of style, or become defunct.

For those reasons, I generally recommend authors stay away from using brand names in their stories unless you’re trying to fix a specific date in time. What do you think?

We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’

Susan

Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing

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17 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (21 Using Registered Trademarks and Brand Names)

  1. Reblogged this on Pukah Works and commented:
    I haven’t run into this … yet. Though definitely good information to keep in mind for the next round of books that are kicking at the doors. I keep forgetting just how deep the trademark “names” have penetrated into our society.

    Thanks Susan for the reminder.
    And, thank Chris for hosting. Love coming in and discovering what Susan is offering up next.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m one of those that still calls tissue “Tissue” and not “Kleenex” and “The Internet” instead of “Google”. I think I might’ve used brand names a few times in my novel, for example, “USA Today” and “Anderson Cooper”. Is “Anderson Cooper” considered a brand name? Hmm…

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  3. I recently edited a book and one of the writers spoke of a SkiDoo. I told her to use snowmobile. Just an instinctive reaction on my part.
    As for my own books, they are all laid in the 28th or 30th century, or on another planet, so I don’t have the problem of trademarked items! Tissue it is, or handkerchief! I don’t even let them use OK! I figure that died sometime in the Second Dark Age!

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  4. Great post, and good point. I try to avoid using brand names in my work, but that’s just a personal thing, as I was told to avoid it to help with the book not aging over the years if a product went out of business etc. (Not that I ever see Google going out of business! :D).

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  5. I only use brand names when I “need” to. For instance, my character Matt Davis is a fly fisherman. In order for readers to know what kind of fly fisherman he is (novice, intermediate, etc.) I throw in a brand name every once in a while that pertains to a particular fly rod, leader material, pair waders, etc. As far as cars go, the same applies: I only use a specific model if I’m referring to a particular time frame, or I want a reader to have a feel for a character’s material preferences. I think you make a good point, however, regarding international sales. At this point, for me, it’s a moot point, because I rarely sell a book outside the US (once in a while Canada or UK). Definitely food for thought, though. 🙂

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