I find myself seeking a lot of ideas for my alternate universes, novels, short stories, and so forth.

Exactly what can be considered copyrighted, and what isn't?

Let me give you some examples.

Star Trek: I know the name "Star Trek" is copyrighted. I am guessing that things like "Enterprise" is as well, and perhaps other ship names. I am also guessing the names of the different races are also copywrighted? But what about things like... "Warp Drive", "Slipstream mode", planet names, technology names, and so forth?

Same with any other fiction. I know that from fantasy: Elves, Necromancer, Dwarves... all of these fantasy terms. They are all open copyright. I can use them in stories, novels, short stories, world creation and so forth.

Bottom line, is I am trying to find out a good way to tell what exactly is copyrighted, and what exactly isn't. What I can use freely, and what requires permission.

  • The issue that you would have, isn't so much using a copyright protected name or something like that. As most times you can get by with just a citation at the end (you see them a lot in movies and in books "Mickey Mouse is a registered trade mark of blah blah" "moby dick is owned and published by blee blee blah" and so on. As a general rule, you can reference but not really use. so you could have someone compare a technologically advanced something with the bridge of the enterprise, but to say that they were on THE enterprise and talking to will ryker, would probably not fly.
    – Bob
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 20:08
  • 1
    Copyright is so tricky to navigate. As technically all of the content in a copyright protected entity is protected. You should bone up on "fair use" but even then, a large enough corporate entity could slap you with a cease and desist. Seems like a googling should be quick enough. When all else fails, try reaching out to the copyright holder, you may be surprised to find they wouldn't mind you using it at all. George Lucas is famously lax when it comes to people using names like C-3PO and such.
    – Bob
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 20:13

3 Answers 3


Instead of wasting your time trying to understand how much you can take from other works and get away with it, you might want to rather invest that time into coming up with your own ideas and fleshing them out.

Every idea anyone has ever had on this Earth is influences by everything that the person having that idea has read, seen and experienced. So, in essence, there are no completely new ideas, and trying to be totally original is a waste of energy and would result in uninteresing, because unrelated to anyting, stuff anyway.

So just relax and allow those influences to feed your imagination, but then turn away from them and look into yourself and create something from the core of your being, instead of constantly turning back to your sources and copying them.

Most beginners feel that they want to write another Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, because they can so clearly see the shortcomings of their own creations. But that should not hinder you, instead you need to understand that writing a masterwork needs the writing of many failed works to come before it. You don't learn to walk without falling countless times, and you would never learn to walk if you tried to emulate a dancer instead of trying to crawl first. Writing is like any other ability, it needs a modest beginning, a lot of training, and patience and perseverance. If you approach writing like you have approached walking (and speaking and whatever else you have mastered in your life), you'll find that you'll outgrow the direct and visible influences of your favourite works and begin to create something original.

So forget this question, and write.


You may have to research your specific term to see how far back it goes and if you can find the first or earliest instance(s). Depending on what you're looking for, you may have to go to physical libraries rather than just the Internet.

Star Trek is obviously a TV show, so the origin can be easily pinpointed. Most of the proper names on the show you can also consider copyrighted. Planet names may or may not; you'd have to look them up. Elves, dwarves, et al. are mythology, but Tolkien's specific interpretation and history of his Middle-Earth elves are copyrighted.

As far as published works in general, in the U.S. the rule of thumb is 75 years after first publication, but some authors/estates renew this copyright, so it's not an ironclad rule. As an example, any Sherlock Holmes stories written before 1923 are public domain (not copyrighted) but those after 1923 are not.

  • 2
    There is also a significant difference between trademark and copyright. Names can be trademarked (but not, I think copyrighted). Trademarks must be registered and can be renewed, copyright is (currently in the U.S. at least) automatic and expires without possibility of renewal. (This page gives some information on U.S. copyright duration; 95 years from first publication/120 years from creation or 70 years after author's death.)
    – user5232
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 23:28

Technically, the name "Star Trek" is not and cannot be copyrighted. It is "trademarked", which legally is an entirely different thing.

A "copyright" protects the exact words or images used in a published work. You cannot take a copy of, say, "Lord of the Rings", put your own name on as the author, and publish it. But you certainly can write your own fantasy novel that others might think resembles Lord of the Rings. You can also include quotes from "Lord of the Rings" in your own work under the "fair use doctrine", but that's getting off in a different direction from your question.

A "trademark" protects a name or title. It's completely different from a copyright. Copyright law specifically says that you can't claim a copyright to a name, phrase, or slogan, etc. But you can claim a trademark.

Usual disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. But in general, if you make up a word that never existed before, you have a very strong claim of trademark. If you use existing words, your claim is weak. If those words are purely descriptive -- an example I recall reading in a legal discussion was "Main Street Grocery Store" -- your claim is VERY weak. If they're used in a different context from the literal meaning, your claim is stronger. Like "Apple Computers" has a decent claim because their computers are not particularly related to literal apples.

So for example, if you wrote a story where the characters use a "frambar drive" to travel between planets -- "frambar" being a word that I just made up -- and someone else wrote a story where he said they used a frambar drive, you'd have a strong trademark claim. But if you said they used a "star drive", your claim would be pitifully weak, because the words "star" and "drive" have been around for hundreds of years. You could make a claim to trademark if you were the first to using those two particular words together, but it would still be a weak claim.

A trademark can be registered with the government, but it doesn't have to be. You can take someone to court for stealing your unregistered trademark. The value of registering is that it is evidence that you really were the first to use the mark. Without a registration, you have to get into arguments in court about who used it first.

So specifically: I haven't checked, but I would be surprised if the people who produce Star Trek have not registered that name as a trademark. When they first made the show their claim would have been weak because "star" and "trek" were existing words being used with their common meanings, but they've built up such a brand association over the years that I'm sure a court would respect that.

Terms like "hyperdrive" and "warp drive" are used so commonly in science fiction that anyone pressing a trademark claim would have a tough battle. I wouldn't hesitate a moment to use those.

A word like "Vulcan" might be tricky. The word "Vulcan" is the name of a Roman god, certainly not invented by Gene Roddenberry. The name was used in astronomy for a planet that was speculated to be inside the orbit of Mercury, so the Star Trek people can't even claim first use for name of a planet. I think they'd have a hard time winning a lawsuit over someone else using that for the name of a planet. But if they brought such a suit, I'm guessing they have a lot more money to spend on lawyers than you do, so is it worth fighting?

In general, I wouldn't use someone else's made-up names. I wouldn't write a story with Klingons or Mimbari, etc. Common phrases like "star ship", "hyperdrive", etc, you can use freely. I've never heard of someone successfully suing over use of words like "transporter", that would be a hard fight to win but maybe in context.

And all of THAT said, I heartily agree with What that you are far better off to write an original story than to devote a lot of effort to seeing how much you can get away with stealing from someone else.

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