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I'm having a hard time finding information on this so let me explain the idea: I'm writing a story that takes place in a small town high school in 1986. And I want to give the characters all nicknames that relate to the time period, so some of them have names that relate to 80's movies or music, can I do this?

As an example of a movie, I have a character with the nickname "Mouth" which is a direct tie in to a character from the Goonies. I tried to keep them all as loose as this one but I also have ideas for a character being called MasterBlaster which is a direct tie to a character from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, is that still ok?

How about songs or titles of things? Could I name a character directly based off of a song like "Mannish Boy" or off of a play like "Casablanca"?

To clarify, it's just their names, I'm not using lyrics or likeness to the story for these properties, just referencing them in my work.

  • I take it you're asking from a legal point of view? You might want to highlight that fact in your question. With that said, there aren't many actual lawyers on this site... – Chris Sunami Feb 8 at 20:03
  • Hey, Kevin. Just letting you know that I (stupidly) left out something important from my original answer about character nicknames, so I've expanded on that section. I've also added something at the bottom about a method writers sometimes use to avoid infringement in this instances. – Dan Feb 10 at 3:56
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Welcome to Writing SE!

The laws on this topic vary from country to country. But I can answer for the United States.

First, you are free to refer to other works by their title (e.g., songs, movies, plays, novels, etc.). But you are not allowed to include material from those works without permission. For example, you can have a character say their favorite Broadway show is The Producers, but you can't have them break out into a musical number from it. Similarly, a character can make an allusion to a Stephen King novel, but you can't have them quoting it without Mr. King's prior approval.

Second, in general, you can make references to any famous person you like without fear of reprisal as long as you don't do so in a negative manner. Speaking about a person neutrally or positively leaves no risk of defamation. However, if you're concerned that you've written something that might qualify as libel but you aren't sure, then I would suggest posting a new question regarding that specific instance, as there's a lot of nuances to consider that go beyond the scope of this question.

Now, when it comes to naming your characters after other fictional characters, there's broadly two angles to consider. Names themselves aren't copyrightable unless a) they're unique to a particular work, or b) the name also appears in association with a unique creative expression or attribute which together form a copyrightable entity.

It's easiest to explain with examples:

  • Obviously, everyday names like Bob or Luke or David pose no issue because they don't necessarily call to mind any specific character. However, you cannot have that same Luke character go around swinging a laser sword, because "Luke + laser sword" does evoke a particular copyrighted character. Even if your character is wildly different from Luke Skywalker in just about every other way, it would likely still constitute infringement.

  • Naming a character MasterBlaster could be seen as copyright infringement, since there's no question that MasterBlaster refers to a specific character protected elsewhere by copyright. If you want to play it safe I would recommend you avoid using such a specific name directly.

  • The situation is similar for a character nicknamed Mouth, especially if they largely resemble the original Mouth. Unlike with MasterBlaster, there's more gray area in this case insofar as "Mouth" is such a general, common word that doesn't necessarily bring to mind the Goonies character every time you hear it. But, the character Mouth is a protected artistic expression, so personally I would be hesitant to use it in this context (especially if your character does indeed behave a lot like the original).

  • However, if you want to make a passing reference to the original MasterBlaster or Mouth in comparison, that's usually fine and constitutes Fair Use. For instance, one character can say, "Dude, you're whinier than Luke Skywalker!" This is OK as long as you don't do it repeatedly for the same reference.

Finally, it should be said for the sake of completeness, that none of this matters if the work is already in the public domain. But little to none of the material you would likely be concerned with from the 1980's will likely be in the public domain yet.

An alternative approach:

If there's some pop culture item in particular that you need to touch on often throughout the story, one technique is to invent a slightly modified version that strongly resembles the original but has some tiny differences. This is not a copyright violation. The audience would understand the connection, so the effect is essentially the same. This also has another potential benefit in that your readers might be favorably amused by your twist on the original, making it memorable in its own right.

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Not a lawyer, but I see no problem to it.

Your characters live in the 80s, so what? It's perfectly reasonable to assume they give each other nicknames based on the period's pop culture.

I definitely don't see companies chasing after every use of the names in their property, and I most definitely don't see them taking legal action in every case. Best case scenario, it's free marketing. Just make sure you're not defamating them.

  • If you're looking for examples of this being made in the past, I just remembered Ready Player One had TONS of pop culture references. I doubt all of them were carefully discussed with the appropriate companies. – FFN Feb 8 at 21:37
  • I more or less agree with the sentiment of your last paragraph. But I'm not sure the OP is asking how likely is it that they would be subject to legal action, but whether they potentially could be. Also, I would bet a cup of coffee that Ready Player One went to great lengths to obtain usage agreements for every reference possible. (But only a small cup.) – Dan Feb 9 at 16:26

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