Let's say I'm writing a sci-fi novel. I want to use a word which another writer has coined, which has become well-recognized outside the original book, for the name of an alien species in my story.

I want to do something akin to this:

Jacob walked in the room, accompanied by Dori, who jumped on the table beside him and began sniffing the book.

"What's that?" said Katie with a frown.

"This is Dori. She's the consulate's grok. She should be able to tell us how old this book is and who had it."

"She's a what?"

Jacob chuckled. "Her species has their own name for themselves, but it's practically impossible to pronounce. What they're best at is — well, they sort of sniff out history. They can read all kinds of things about an object. The history of it, the age, who touched it, how many people touched it —"

"She smells all that?"

"It's not really smelling, but close enough. Anyway, when they first arrived and we found out what they could do, one of the ambassadors is a real Heinlein buff, and she started calling them 'groks.' And it stuck."

Can I get away with that? Considering that "grok" is popular enough to be known outside Stranger in a Strange Land, I'm using it to mean something similar to the coined meaning, it's not an insult or derogatory in any fashion, and I'm citing the coiner of the word right there in dialogue as I introduce the word. Is that considered "fair use"? Or is "grok" so attached to Heinlein that I would still have to get permission?

5 Answers 5


First off, "grok" is not copyrighted; you can't copyright individual words, even made-up ones. Therefore fair use (a defense against an infringement claim) does not apply. That doesn't mean it's impermissible, in fact it almost certainly is fine.

It's also not trademarked, as it is not being used by the Heinlein estate to identify a product or service. And as it is not an invention, it is also not patented. So from an intellectual property standpoint you are covered.

The only real problem you might run into is if you wrote something so similar to SIASL that your story might be legitimately considered a derivative work. Even in that situation it is not always a slam-dunk case, but your use of the word "grok" might be considered evidence that you were aware you were copying that specific work. But since you don't seem to be doing that, I don't foresee a difficulty there either.

Adoption of terminology used by one writer by others is common in the science fiction field. "Robot" (which was invented by a writer outside the SF field, though Asimov seems to have coined the word "robotics") and "ansible" are two that spring to mind. Writers tend to let such borrowings happen without objection because they have certainly done their share.

All that said, this is America and you can be sued for anything at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. The fact that any case against you for using "grok" in your own novel would probably be thrown out doesn't mean you can't be sued. But that's not a reason not to write it. You could be sued by someone who thinks your villain is too much like themselves too.

I would not bother with the dialog explaining what a "grok" is in your story. SF readers familiar with SIASL (i.e. most of them) will immediately understand, and readers not familiar with it will get it when you show them what the grok can do. If you must have such dialog, please oh please for once make it so the other person gets it rather than needing it explained. "A grok? Oh, because her function is to understand things, right?"

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    An anti-cabbagehead? that would be my pleasure. :) And I'd forgotten about the coinage of "robot"; you're absolutely right. Commented Sep 26, 2011 at 23:42

Kindall tackled the legal aspect. As for reception/perception considerations, here's the rule of thumb I'd use:

If you're using the same word in the same way for the same thing, and your story is about that thing (or concept, or whatever) - you're crossing the line. That's like saying "I'm writing a story about the same Smeerps Albert J. Jones wrote about," and that feels like you're treading on his toes.

If you're using it in a different way (e.g. verb --> race name) then your referencing it, which is fine. I'd be concerned about feeling in-jokey or outright inbred if the phrase is really tough to recognize for somebody who isn't a fan, but it wouldn't feel like infringement.

If you're using it in the same way for the same thing, but your story is about something else - then that's usually fine. You're saying "I've accepted your concept as a building block for my story," and that's acceptable in SF.

Or, to put it briefly: in general, the more your use of the phrase is dependent on the original, the more problematic it is.

A slight addendum is that if a word originating from (or featured in) a particular work has entered common usage, at least in the genre (e.g. "grok," "robotics," "hyperspace," "replicator"), then you can pretty much do as you like with it - that's a case where the phrase has become recognized as completely independent on the original. But I think part of what you're asking is how a word moves from "unique" to "common usage," since somebody needs to be the first to swipe it :)

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    "you're treading" (free proofreading!) And no, it's not. Not generally, at least. If you use a coined word, why should you use it in a different way? I mean, you're not advocating Humpty-Dumpty, do you? Take the example "grok". I haven't read Stranger in a Strange land, and I still know the term (from the Jargon File). Why should I not use it in the way it's been used by RAH? What did he coin it for if not to use it? Sorry, your rule of thumb is wrong. 100% dead wrong. Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 0:57
  • @JürgenA.Erhard: Then why no downvote? :) More to the point - I'm not sure you understood my intention. This is where the "your story is about that thing" clause comes into play - if you write a novel which focuses strongly on what it means to "grok," and the kind of culture that concept could come from and how it'd pan out here on Earth, then yes - I think that'd be inappropriate.
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 4:50
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    (In addition, "grok" has also really entered common usage, which makes it much more acceptable - it's less dependent on reading the original novel, as you say, I'll add something on that.)
    – Standback
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 4:51
  • This answer is completely wrong. The only issue here is trademark violation, not whether it comes into common usage or not. It was perfectly legal for authors to use "grok" in the same sense as Heinlein even before it came into common usage. However, even though "google" as a verb has come into common usage, trademark law still applies (which doesn't mean you can't use it; just that usage has to conform to trademark laws). Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 10:11
  • I can't sell a novel featuring Harry Potter (unless it was some sort of parody), not because it hasn't come into common usage, but because he's a trademarked character. I can however use words like muggles, death eaters, crucio, reducio, etc. however I want so long as they haven't be trademarked. Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 10:15

IANAL, but I don't think they can sue you (successfully) for using a word which is part of the (informal) English language:



Even my favourite dictionary lists it.


Actually you can prevent others using your made up words by having it registered as a trademark. In your case, you can cite fair use especially since the word is now common and known outside of the original author's creation. The word 'grok' as was pointed up above is part of the common English language now and it would be difficult to find grounds to penalize you for using it without the author's consent.

  • Isn't trademark to do with "trade"? That basketball coach got a trademark on "threepeat" if it's used in a commercial application, such as on commemorative merchandise. That doesn't stop a newspaper from using it in a headline, does it? Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 12:06
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    No. Words can be trademarked to keep others from using them. This was a very popular tactic a few years ago on the Net to keep others from using common phrases as domain names. The court would always side with the party who owned the trademark. This practice is now frowned upon.
    – Adeem
    Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 12:43
  • citation please? I'd like to research this. Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 15:40
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    Sure, ivanhoffman.com/passive.html, udrpcommentaries.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/… . Also search for WIPO which is the regulation for arbitration. There was a particular guy who held trademarks for a lot of commonly used names. Finally a couple of companies took him to court and the court took them away from him. I can't recall his name at the moment. Anyway they drafted the laws after that.
    – Adeem
    Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 16:15
  • Adeem, once again, those cases boil down to merchandise — domain names, in your examples. They are do with trade, or commerce, meaning money. My question is about "intellectual property" purely in the creative sense. Yes, if my novel sold, I'd be making money off "groks, the species," but that isn't the same as going to Café Press and ordering up I GROK SPOCK T-shirts. "Use" in the commercial sense is not the same as "use" in the creative sense, such as in a newspaper headline, which was my counter-example. I'm still not seeing how you can prevent people from "using" a word that way. Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 21:50

Grok existed in 1700 AD?


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