Referencing Works with Copyrights



Can I say things like this in my game without permission with no fear of repurcussions?

  • Drinking a Coke

  • Watching Star Wars

  • Reading Cujo by Stephen King

  • Listening to a Metallica album

  • It's Halloween. You see a guy donning a Batman mask. "Hey Bats! " you yell, waving your knife at the great detective. "Why so serious?!?!"

...not that I'd want to say these things, specifically, mind you...

...but you see what I'm asking (hopefully).


Don't be afraid of everyone else.

If Metallica finds out, they most likely would sue you, but only if you've made any money. And the odds of either making money on a Quest game or Metallica finding out are both vanishingly small. And the odds of both making money on a Quest game and Metallica finding out? Well, it's rather more likely that Marvin the depressed robot will find his happy place.

They probably can't sue you for those examples.

Copyright infringement means copying substantial parts of a work; trademark is usually dilution.

If character is listening to a Metallica album and you quote the lyrics, they could claim copyright infringement, but it's not likely.

If you have characters go to a named restaurant chain and all get sick, they could sue you. The line between saying "Coke is bad" and "John doesn't like Coke" is blurry in law; best not to go near it.

If you have a character ask for a Coke and get a generic cola, they could sue you. If you use a trademarked brand name, it must be referring to the actual product. Some authors put a disclaimer in the front of a book to say that John's Coke is genuine Coke made by (full company name); or listing trademarks that the story uses to refer to specific branded products, so there can be no debate.

Note that if someone makes a complaint about your use of a trademark they have to prosecute. Because "you didn't sue this other guy" is a legitimate defence in trademark cases. I've seen fansites and parodies get shut down over that.


Better watch out, JenniferCampbell! I can sort of gauge your age based upon your knowledge of dated pop culture!!!

I thought Marvin was in his happy place while spinning around on one stump in the swamp on that mattress planet? (He definitely enjoyed annoying me in the Hittchiker's game by asking for an item he knew I didn't have in the end game!!!)

If a character is listening to an album and you quote the lyrics, they could claim copyright infringement, but it's not likely.

See, this is what I was thinking of more than anything else, and it seems unwise. (Not Metallica lyrics, though. I just threw them out there because ... well, you know.)

Anyway, I have an NPC who keeps invading my imagination while I'm trying to fall asleep. He only says lines from songs, movies, or TV. I now realize that this is a bad idea as far as game-play is concerned, too. If the player must decipher what he says to solve a big puzzle, and she or he isn't familiar with the song or film being referenced, that would suck. (And if you read the comments on one of XM's games, you will find that Beatles lyrics aren't even commonly known nowadays. (Blasphemy! You young [expletive deleted] like that auto-tune [expletive deleted]!!! Auto-tune sucks, okay?!?!))

All digressions aside (for a moment), thanks much for the feedback!

I've decided gray areas are not playgrounds, and I shall refrain from referencing anything from the real world in my game world (unless it's in the public domain).

I'm parenthetically challenged. Have I ever told you guys and gals that before.? (Have I? (Huh? (Tell the truth!)))

((((I do the same thing don't worry!))))

I think the copyright is more about:
You create a "world" named in (say) Star Wars, and you use the characters in Star Wars in your game without the studio's permission... Especially if it could be proven you copied events from the movie, (any of them).
Like you did a game based on the attack on Hoth…
Mentioning "Hoth" in a Star Wars setting would clearly referencing a protected work, but saying "I want a coke" I don't thing would raise any eyebrows...
If you were to look at everything that someone has copyrighted over the years, and what someone could copyright... You could be sued over every word you use because someone, somewhere, has used that word in their story, book, play, movie...
Originally, copyrights protected "things" and "ideas" from being copied...
As in: Copying an existing cotton gin and building and selling them as if you invented it yourself... (Ever heard the expression, "The real McCoy")
But today, with software and music... the copyright laws have been muddled to the extent that if you put 2 words together, or draw a picture, you could get sued because someone else put those same two words together and now you are copying what they did...

Originally, copyrights protected "things" and "ideas" from being copied

Copyright protects creative works. A picture, a piece of music, a film clip, a design, a poem, an original passage of prose. You cannot copyright an idea.

(You can patent an idea; but that's a different branch of law, with different rules and exceptions. And it varies between different countries even more than trademark law does)

you could get sued because someone else put those same two words together

They'd have to show that you were aware of their use, and were directly copying it.

Most of the stupid cases you read about in the news are trademark, not copyright. Copyright is about preventing art from being copied; trademark is about preventing you profiting from someone else's brand reputation.

Mentioning "Hoth" in a Star Wars setting would clearly referencing a protected work

Derivative works is a really tricky issue, and varies between jurisdictions. They probably wouldn't be able to get you on that one with copyright law.

But… "Hoth" is a registered trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. Using it as the name of a planet in literature, film and television, video games, action figure ranges, comic books, childrens' bedding, or children's games and playsets would be prosecutable because you'd be gaining benefit from their advertising, and possibly affecting the reputation of their brand.
(it could be registered for other product types as well; but those are the only ones that I could find)

saying "I want a coke" I don't thing would raise any eyebrows

The company that makes it could argue that the use of the word "coke" to refer to a generic cola-style beverage. They don't want that usage to become any more common; so they can ban authors and filmmakers from using their trademark in that way.

So to avoid getting sued, you should be sure that the character who wants a Coke is asking for the genuine article. I would expect that spelling it with a capital letter (because it's a proper noun) would be sufficient. Some authors put a specific disclaimer in the front of their books, listing trademarks used and saying that they're used to refer to specific products; whether this is necessary is up for debate. In at least two specific cases, a court has ruled that capitalising the product name is sufficient proof that a character means the real product of that name (the ones I'm being aware of were for "Dumpster" and "SPAM").

Grey areas are definitely playgrounds. Not for the feint of heart, maybe, but trust me on this. Don't trust me on anything else, but trust me on this one.

Grey areas may be playgrounds, but I take it seriously! I value the consumer over the provider. I protect parodies and YTPs! Just because it hurts the original source does not mean it's copy right infingement! Just look at Minecraft (sevral mine games), Pokemon (Digimon), etc.!


Gray areas were fun before the internet came along, but I don't gamble online, in any way, shape, or form. (Call me what you will. It doesn't bother me one bit if anyone thinks I'm yella'. (I learned from Marty McFly.))

I frequently use subtle references to my favorite works. I have a whole shelf in a bookcase in X2 dedicated Dean Koontz novels. If a player tries to read them, they get some message like “These are great books, but you have no time to read them at a time like this.” I also make references to Blazing Saddles, Planes Trains, Monty Python, multiple classic TAs, etc. I never am libelous toward any mention of copyrighted material. I am therefore confident I am safe from lawsuits. May I be struck dead the day Dean Koontz or Mel Brooks sue me for complimenting one of their works in one of my piddly little TAs. Actually, I may take it as a back-handed compliment.


I frequently use subtle references to my favorite works. I have a whole shelf in a bookcase in X2 dedicated Dean Koontz novels.

You've got that in Pixie's Quest, too.

Worry not, though, Constant Readers! For the Stephen King collection in my next game puts anything Koontzy to shame.

Heck... One Stephen King short story can do that...

In fact, a made for TV movie based on a Stephen King story can handle that job...

Koontz fans VS. Constant Readers!


(Can I say that?)

(Also, can I say, "that's hot!"? Or does PH own them there words?)


I've never heard of an author of fiction having issue with name dropping a brand. This happens a lot in writing set in modern times. The issue would be if you actually quote something from an existing book/movie or disparage a product (saying that an iPhone gave your character cancer or something).

I think you are very unlikely to get sued, but may be asked to stop doing it. I was responsible for a company web site, and it mentioned Teflon. We got an e-mail from Du Pont telling us it was their trademark, and we could only use it if we made that clear. I suspect this related to them wanting to prevent it going generic.

Remember that fan fiction is a thing, and there is a lot out there. But to be safe, perhaps your character should be drinking fizzy brown Hoth on the ice planet Coke.


You are on Aisle 5. The sign above reads: Sealants.

You can see a roll of Teflon ™ tape.


So, it might be unwise to have a location called "Staircase to Hell", which led to "Rock & Roll Hell"?

You are in Rock & Roll Hell.

You can see old people. (They don't appear to know that they're old. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't all be donning skin-tight leather outfits and dancing around like that.)

There are large speakers scattered all around this area, which are all currently assaulting your auricular sense with "Velcro Fly" by Z.Z. Top (see footnote 1).

> footnote 1
I love Z.Z. Top. I just didn't dig their disco phase.

You are in Rock & Roll Hell.
You can see old people.

Thank for almost killing me this morning!



That was revenge for your post referencing church the other day, Jennifer! (That post had me in stitches!)

>count stitches
There are 69,105 of them.

I thought there were 45,264? Or is that something else entirely?

I don't think "referencing" a copyrighted work would be the problem...
"I would like a Coke, please"...
Using someone else's idea, their "world" could be a problem...
"You are Luke Skywalker stationed on Hoth, at the new rebel base...
A sensor just tripped on an outer perimeter...
What do you do?"
Without an OK from Lucas Film, you may have a problem... Or a new job.
But, I don't think there would be much effort to track down every event when someone uses
a trade marked item... But, If you did go "big budget" and hit it rich, I'm sure someone, somewhere,
would want a piece of the action...


Yeah, I was asked not to post an Interactive Adventure I based on a very famous author's world. I actually sent it in for approval first, and, after corresponding with 4 assistants' assistants in a row, I ended up getting an email from his personal assistant, who said he definitely enjoyed it, but he'd just signed a movie deal, and the deal included the giving up control over any video (or computer) games.


I know the man himself probably didn't ever actually even hear about my little game, and that one of his people was simply being nice about everything, but... It is actually a good game. It seems like I had nothing to do with it at all when I play it now.


The movie adaptation flopped.

...and it sucked. (Sometimes movie adaptations of his books do one, but not the other.)

I actually sent it in for approval first

If you send it to them, they have to say no, because they are obliged to to keep legal control, whether they want to or not. If you do not ask for approval, they can turn a blind eye.



I wrapped myself up in red tape.

To mister K.V.,

The makers of Red Tape (Bureaucracy, Inc.), have been made aware of your use of their trade-marked term, "red tape".
As their designated attorney, I am writing to inform you that, in order to avoid further legal action, you must immediately cease and desist the use of the term, "red tape".

Saul Goodman
Atty at Law


Ha! Whoops!

Red Tape ™

I do mostly fan fiction. My games, stories and drawings are usually based on them. A LOT of people do it and as far as I and many others are concerned, it is fair use and legal. The arguement of if companies can sue is a mute point because you can get sued for practically anything these days, but most of us still leave our homes to work and have a life.

Generally if you post who was the original creator of said world out of respect, you should be fine. Also if you do not make any money you should be fine. If companies sue every fan making something out of love for their worlds, they would no longer have any fans and thus no money.

However on Youtube I had made music videos (and this was before they got crazy with the take downs) and all were fine except for one. Apparently who ever has the owners for Chris Gaines (aka Garth Brooks) are their stingent of their property. The video was taken down in less than 24 hrs with a warning.

I began searching for Chris Gaines videos and at the time I could only find one that was in horrible condition, like putrid. To me that should of been taken down, because of the quality and it may very well of been soon after. However I know scores of other people on Youtube who did their own cover version and they were perfectly fine, so ehhh...

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