As a writer, it is very tempting to include celebrities and real people, places, movies, and more to build an engaging and believable world for your readers. So is it ok to have real-world information such as a celebrity?
It is acceptable and safe to mention a celebrity in your book in some circumstances. Just naming them is fine, for example. You may be tempted to use many other possibilities, like having them as a romantic character that is more likely to get you in trouble. You will need to be careful.
In the article, we will discuss in more detail when it is safe to use a name and when it could get you into big trouble and cost you dearly financially.
Can I Mention a Celebrity in My Book?
As a general guideline, it should fine to include a celebrity in your book along with other real-world information such as place names, TV shows and so on. There are always some limitations and catches that can trip you up if you do not know about them.
This article will discuss some of the issues and cover what should be fine and what is more likely to get you into problems that could lead to legal problems and financial penalties.
The most straightforward and most likely safest usage is to use facts in brief mentions as part of background information to flesh out a character or places in your book, for instance. Your lead character discussing they are a big fan of a certain actor or always watches a particular TV show without fail is fine for example.
The same goes with companies, products and distinguishing buildings used to describe a location can help a reader build a clear mental picture and makes the story more lifelike and relatable.
You are likely to get into issues if you start getting into negative descriptions, saying disparaging things about famous person X, or something that happened to a specific business due to them being terrible. Even something that you think is positive and, therefore, safe may be seen differently by the actual person.
Be careful of potentially putting words or opinions into your fictional portrayal. The real person may have a vastly different set of beliefs, morals or standards and consider it a negative.
So, keep your mentions as part of adding color and interest to your world. If they don’t really enhance your descriptions, then maybe it would be easier to just remove them and avoid any risk or doubts if you have any. Make sure they add value and not just because it seems cool to add.
Are Celebrity Names Copyrighted
Ok, you have decided to include a few mentions and, during your travels in writers’ forums, may come across a question about copyright. Even if you are positive you are safe, is it copyright an issue that comes up as a question.
The good news is that celebrity names are not copyright protected, just used as a name. If the name is only used to describe the person, it is not covered. However, we do need to cover something called secondary meaning. The simple version is that if a celebrity started a drinks brand, for example, and used their name as the brand name, then secondary meaning could now protect that name to a higher level than if it is just used as their name.
For a clear description of this, head over to Celebrity Brands:
In this example, our celebrity name has become a trademark with a different level of protection. The use of this needs to be far more carefully considered.
Using celebrities as characters in a book
Some stories may really benefit from having a real celebrity appear in the book. Maybe you are writing a detective story and a star was in the restaurant at the time of the murder. Having your lead character interview them sounds like a great idea.
This is really a firm no, do not do this without getting express permission from the celebrity. Even if you think you are just using them very briefly to answer a few facts, having them actually appear in the book, no matter how briefly you make it, means you will need to reach out to their agent or staff to get them to approve it in writing.
Definitely, time to get a lawyer involved for this one to make sure you are covered.
Can you name a character after a celebrity?
So maybe you don’t want to use the celebrity directly, just the name. Can you safely name a character after a celebrity because the character’s parent is a fan?
You could use a celebrity’s name in this case, as it should be clear you are not discussing them directly. There is still some risk with this if you use the celebrity name as the full name of a character with negative traits as the real person could be offended by the association.
A good option is to use part of a name. That way, the reader gets the back story from the parent while the character is very distinct from the real-world person.
Can I use a real person in my Book?
After thinking about the potential issues, maybe you decide that it would be safer to stay away from having a famous face appear in your book. So, what about using a real person who you find interesting?
You can use a real person in your book, but you get very similar issues as you do with a famous person. If you portray a real person negatively, they can also sue you and cause you problems. They may not have the same impact on your book as they are not well known and therefore not newsworthy, but they can still cause a problem just the same.
An alternative you may consider is to use the traits of a person but with a new name. This is less risky, but you still need to be careful about handling this. If the person you describe is very distinct, then just changing the name may not help keep you out of trouble. If someone familiar with the person you are using as inspiration can read your description and identify who it is, you are too close to real and still have the same risk.
The best action is to use particular people as inspiration but not use all the same facts about a real person. Use a couple of key items that are most useful for your story and change all the other information about the character to give them depth and life and make them very different from their real-life inspiration.
Can I mention a movie in my Book?
Yes, you can use a movie title in your Book without needing to ask any permission. A follow-up question is can you mention a TV show in a book? Yes, this is also true for the titles of songs, TV shows, places, events, etc. If it is a fact, you can include this without any risk.
It is essential to be clear about using these factual pieces of information vs. the protected parts. If you use the name of a poem, you can do so without permission. If you want to quote any lines from the poem, you will need to ask permission before you publish anything using them.
The text of the poem is protected, and the same goes for the lyrics of a song. Using the song title, album name, or band is fine, but the lyrics are copyrighted and cannot be used without specific permissions.
Doesn’t This fall under fair use?
Unfortunately, fair use is a very tricky area to get into and has tripped up many creators over the years. The rules about fair use can seem very clear but are not as well understood as you think.
Using short parts of song lyrics, a book or similar could be fine and fall under fair use if you are doing it as part of a review or parody of the original. The amount you use is a crucial part of establishing if fair use applies, and unfortunately, there is no fixed number to guide you. So the shorter, the better is the best guidance.
Using 10 words from a novel may be ruled ok, but 10 words from an 8-line poem may be too much. That is the main issue when considering fair use. There is no fixed definition of key parts. You are risking a trip to court and finding out the expensive way.
The safe course is to ask permission before using any part of someone else’s work unless it is a simple, clearly permitted item such as the name or title.
They Have the Resources to Take You to Court.
We have mentioned lawyers and trips to court in this article, and this is one of the most important aspects to keep in mind if you are thinking of using a celebrity name.
They have far more resources at their disposal than most of us have to defend ourselves with. They likely have agents and lawyers available who work with them on contracts regularly, so it would not be much effort to have one of them take on your misuse.
Do You Still Want to Use a Celebrity Name?
If you do and you have a contract with a publisher, then the good news is that you have some resources that you can use to help you determine if you can go ahead. Get in touch with your publisher and explain what you want to include in your Book.
They should have the experience to tell you if this will be allowed realistically. If so, the publisher should also help you reach out to the celebrity’s staff to ask for permissions.
If you have decided to go down the self-publishing route, then you have a more difficult time, but not impossible. Form letters are available to help you craft a request letter, and the contact information for a celebrity’s representative is typically easy to find.
The worse they can say is no, and maybe they will give you the go-ahead. At least you will know either way and be safe.
Think carefully before going ahead and make sure you are in the clear before going ahead. Good luck!
This article should not be taken as legal advice and is intended as general information only. You get your own legal advice before publication for any of the items discussed in this article.