Are you allowed to use brands/trademarks/company names in your writing?

This is one of those questions I get all the time.

A prevailing myth amongst writers is that using names like Google and Coke in their books is against the law. This is not true. There is nothing illegal about it! 

Then why does this myth prevail in the writing community? Well, probably because publishers tend to avoid using brand names. NOT because it’s illegal, but because they want to avoid being seen endorsing or supporting one brand over another. Same applies to TV shows. That’s why they don’t show branded content on clothing (unless it’s paid for by a sponsor), and why characters are always using that annoying not-quite-Google search engine. Publishers and networks simply don’t like giving away free advertising.

In truth, you can use as many brand names in your book as you like. (Remember all the brand references in Britt Easton Ellis’s book Glamorama?)

BUT! While not illegal, there are of course limitations to how you can use brand names in your writing. Before you do so, brush up on the laws around defamation,trademark tarnishment, and trademark dilution. 

Defamation and trademark tarnishment

These are the two you are most likely to get sued for if you’re mentioning the brand or company in a way that falsely implies or states something BAD about it. For example, if you write that a certain Apple product is defective or dangerous, the company could sue you. But your characters are free to use iphones on every page without consequence.

Similarly, you’re free to talk about Elon Musk, but don’t claim that he is an alien and eats puppies.

Trademark dilution

Brands hate this one. Trademark dilution happens when a brand or company’s name becomes generic – less distinctive/not necessarily associated with the product/brand in question anymore – through misuse. The most recent example is the verb ‘google’. Despite many years of fighting it in court, google is now in many dictionaries as a verb.

But why do companies hate it so much? Surely using their name as a verb is a compliment? Wrong! Many brands have actually lost their trademarks in the past due to trademark dilution – think aspirin, cellophane, escalator, or thermos. This is what brands are afraid of.

Best to use photocopied rather than ‘xeroxed’ or the Xerox Corporation might come for you.

Do I need to use the registered trademark symbol?

Nope! Another common myth. You don’t have to use the symbol in running text.

In a nutshell

As long as you’re just mentioning a brand, company, or person in passing, and you’re not making any claims, value judgements, or using them in an offensive, inaccurate or disparaging context, you’re golden. 

Happy writing!