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I am working on a new project that draws influence from a currently running television show. What I want to do is make a reference to that show in my work. Almost as a joke to say, "We're nothing like that show."

Is it appropriate to use the name of that show in my work? Could there be a legal issue down the road? Is it ethical to drop the name of something that inspired the work itself?

Thanks!

  • 2
    This is one of those question where you should start by asking yourself, have I ever seen this done by others? Have you? If so, what do you conclude? – Mark Baker Apr 26 '17 at 18:20
  • Good point. TV Shows and movies do it all the time. I guess I wasn't sure if this medium would be any different. – Dylan Beck Apr 26 '17 at 18:23
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    There's nothing wrong with doing that, though bear in mind that doing so might date your work in a few years' time. For example any work that includes a lot of jokes about Lost seems pretty creaky now. – GordonM May 11 '17 at 8:27
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Not only is this acceptable, but you should. Sometimes, mentioning the name of a book, a TV show or a brand can be a powerful way of making the reader feel like they are in the middle of the story. Remember that you should always try to make the reader feel what the characters are feeling. Use words that make the reader imagine the sounds the characters are hearing, the smells they are perceiving, etc. For example, something like

"She felt dehydrated. She opened a can of Coke and gulped the sugary, ice-cold liquid so avidly that the bubbles hurt her throat,"

is 1000 times more evocative than: "She was thirsty so she drank a cold soft drink very fast." However, note that this only works well if you can be sure that most of your readers know the mentioned brand and thus can relate to what they are supposed to feel.

  • while this expands on how doing so can help the story, it doesn't actually answer the question that was posed by the OP, could you please elaborate? – Malachi Jun 20 '18 at 16:39
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    @Malachi I'd say it does. It is implied that it is appropriate to include brand names by "In fact, you should" – Aric Jun 20 '18 at 17:30
  • I think that the answer to the OP should be more than implied, @AricFowler. – Malachi Jun 21 '18 at 14:55
  • Your example doesn't seem fair. Compare: "She felt dehydrated. She opened a can of soda and gulped the sugary, ice-cold liquid so avidly that the bubbles hurt her throat," which is just about as evocative. The difference between your snippets is much larger than simply using or not using a brand name. – Nolimon Jun 21 '18 at 15:09
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    @Malachi True. Perhaps an edit to the answer will be in order – Aric Jun 21 '18 at 17:02
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Answer: Yes

Examples off the top of my head:
1. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series references the Lord of the Rings, on multiple occasions, as well as many, many other things.
2. R. A. Salvatore's Spearwielder's Tale likewise references the Lord of the Rings.

Basically, it is permitted to mention a real life work of fiction in your own work of fiction. As general rule, rules of plagiarism and copyright do not distinguish between a fictional and non-fictional work, so if you can do something in a non-fiction work (e.g. say "I love Stargate SG-1!", in a discussion or review), then you can do the same in a fictional work, (e.g. have a character exclaim "I love Stargate SG-1!").

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The answer is YES, you can do so. What you cannot do is quote the work. Or make it so close that it borders on plagiarism.

"OMG! We are on an island! This better not turn all weird like Lost! Gah!" is perfectly fine.

I once wrote a road story based on my playlist and how it matched the mood of where I was. I could not use the lyrics themselves without obtaining the rights from the writer, but the titles and band names was perfectly fine.

If you have any doubt, consult an attorney.

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What you suggest is actually a very time-honored form of homage.

The only real difficulty is that it can cause your work to appear dated.

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    One of Agatha Christie's books (I forget which) was a collection of short stories with common setting and lead characters. The specious unifying theme was that the leads were government employees on special duty, pretending to be private detectives. Knowing nothing about private detectives except what they read in books (of their own era), in each chapter they approach the problem by trying to imitate some detective, mentioned by name (supposed to be real). But of all of them, only Sherlock Holmes is readily recognized nowadays. – user23046 May 8 '17 at 18:22
  • This doesn't really answer the original question posed by the OP, but does provoke the good side and the bad side of doing so. – Malachi Jun 20 '18 at 16:41
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You're probably worried about "defamation" when you fear "mentioning" a real life story

Defamation occurs when you say something that is:

  1. certifiably untrue
  2. as a statement of fact, not opinion
  3. that is highly offensive to a reasonable person.

Your statement, "we're not anything like that show" doesn't meet any of these tests. It can't be proven or disproven (not certifiably untrue), because it is a statement of opinion, not fact. Nor is it highly offensive to a reasonable person (everyone has their own view of what is like or unlike something).

You would be on shakier ground if you said something like, "Show X is pornographic." That is something that:

  1. can be disproven
  2. can be taken as a statement of fact
  3. would be offensive to most people.
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    Unless, of course, Show X really is objectively pornographic! – a CVn May 15 '17 at 20:53

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