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 .
In Canada, you can use the Federal Trademark Search, 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?
Next week we’ll discuss ‘Tenses’
This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.
I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.
If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.