I actually do not have any plans to use any characters from another book in any of my books (either as fan fiction, a joke, or a reference). Out of interest, though, would it be legal to pull in a character from another series into my book as a joke (there is definitely no way to do this seriously)?

An example would be if I have some people walking around in 1800s London and they come across Sherlock Holmes. You could even take the idea farther and use the character as important character in your own story. Would that be legal?

EDIT: Okay, so I don't have a specific question here. I have a very broad question to the idea of using characters from other books. I never plan to do that, but was simply wondering about the legality of it. I am asking about generalities. There are exception (Sherlock Holmes being one of them), but I am merely interested in the general idea.


This is a legal question, and I am not a lawyer. So all of the following is my opinion, I am not giving you legal advice.

If the character is not still under copyright, then sure. I am pretty sure Sherlock Holmes, as originally written, is no longer under copyright.

Otherwise, you are skating on very thin ice without written permission from the copyright holder (read that article about what WAS happening). If a writer fleshes out another character enough to be "recognizable" by much of the public (which is what you need for your cameo to make any sense), then the use of that character, their name, their description, etc is covered by copyright.

Essentially, your use of that character improves the value of your story (or you wouldn't have included it), so you are making money on somebody else's work, which is the whole point of "copyright".

Also, your portrayal of that character, since it is not done by the original author, has the potential to damage the character in the eyes of the public, no matter how well-intentioned you may be. What that character does, thinks, or dresses like or looks like is all the domain of the original author and any changes are subject to the approval of the copyright holder, and (in the USA) they could have grounds to sue you for damaging the public view of their property.

So (In the USA and perhaps other countries with similar copyright laws) I would expect you to be sued for using any recognizable character, especially if you made any money by doing it.

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  • IANAL, also. But IIRC the main issue is what you said about devaluing the character the author created. By international treaty authors have a moral right to protect their works from potential abuse. So unless you are very careful about using the character only as the author intended you are in the wrong regardless of where in the world you try to hide. Direct copyright of literary characters is more problematic since technically only descriptions and depictions of characters are copyrighted, not the characters. But if it is recognizable your description is probably derivative and illegal. – Ville Niemi Feb 2 '18 at 16:00

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