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I'm writing a novel, and the plotline has military terminology and insignias. The basic plot is that there are two continents in my world: one capitalist and allegorically like the US and NATO, and the other communist and allegorically like the former USSR.

Is it legal for me to use the old military insignias of the USSR for my story for the communist continent's military? Or is it best to steer clear of that?

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Under US copyright law, anything created by the US government is not protected by copyright. It is automatically public domain. (There are some complexities to this that we could get into but they're not relevant here.) But it doesn't necessarily follow that every other country in the world has the same laws.

In the case of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union no longer exists, so it's not clear who would sue you for infringement! In any case, current Russian law specifically excludes the text of laws and government symbols from copyright protection. So you could freely copy contemporary Russian military insignia. Even if Russia considered itself to have inherited documents and symbols from the Soviet Union, they would presumably fall under the same exemption.

As Cyn says, if you are creating a fictional country, you probably don't want to copy too much from a real country, as that could quickly become distracting and out of place. If I saw a movie based on Lord of the Rings and the hobbits had American flags flying over their village, my first thought would be that there was supposed to be some connection between the fictional hobbit nation and the United States, that they were eventually going to reveal that this place was founded by inter-dimensional travelers from the US or something. And if no such connection was ever introduced, I'd think the producers were either really messed up or were trying to make some kind of point.

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  • That’s true. I’ve opted to go full on fictional and just not mess with it. I’ll be using generic names like High Commander, Joint Commanders, etc – MissouriSpartan Feb 27 '19 at 2:44
  • Would this include stuff by NASA? Say for example I wanted to use one of our past satellites in my story line? – MissouriSpartan Mar 14 '19 at 19:22
  • Yes, NASA is an agency of the US government. And so, for example, photos taken by US space probes are public domain and you can freely use them. The "complexity" I mentioned above is that work produced by a government contractor may still be protected by copyright. So for example if Northrop-Grumman built a satellite and posted a picture of that satellite on the Internet, that picture may be government property and thus not copyrighted or it may be Northrop-Grumman property and copyrighted, depending on the terms of relevant government contracts. ... – Jay Mar 14 '19 at 20:59
  • Ok perfect! Thanks! I may just make up a fake satellite name then – MissouriSpartan Mar 14 '19 at 21:00
  • ... Easy solution: Look for the copyright notice or other citation. If it says "(C) 1982 by Fwacbar Corporation" or whatever, it's copyrighted. If it says "NASA photo" or names some other government agency as the owner, it's not copyrighted. If you don't see any such attribution, I'd be careful about using it. – Jay Mar 14 '19 at 21:00
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Legal and wise are not the same thing.

Legally I believe you're in the clear. There is no trademark on government symbols.

But if you use the actual symbols from the USSR, you are writing yourself into a corner. Readers who recognize them will expect that your country is in fact the USSR, even if it has a different name.

You are better off making a few changes. It will be obvious to most readers that your novel is about two superpowers similar to superpowers of the recent past. And that's okay. You have more freedom though if you break away from the absolutes. Use a different animal where one country uses animals. Or use a plant or natural formation instead of an animal. Change up the colors. Change the number of stripes, or make stripes into concentric circles.

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  • ok, thanks! I wasn't sure when it came to that kind of thing, how wise it was to just go total "fiction" even on military terminology like that, or if it was considered OK to do that. Makes more sense now. – MissouriSpartan Feb 26 '19 at 20:47
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    @MissouriSpartan I am glad you liked my answer. I am going to ask you though to hold off on choosing it as a best answer. Give it 24-48 hours and see what other answers you get. If you still think it's the best, by all means click that checkmark. This way more people are encouraged to answer, which is your goal. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 26 '19 at 20:51
  • Actually, using a different colour is not as easy as you might think. There's a symbolism to each colour. Red came to be the colour of socialism through being the colour of the blood of the workers. You'd have to change human blood into haemocyanin-based, instead of haemoglobin-based, in order to change that. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_colour – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 26 '19 at 20:58
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    @Galastel Well ... you could also just invent a different symbolism. If the country is fictional, nothing says they have to use the same symbols as the model they're based on. That was Cyn's point. You could say their insignia are blue because blue is the color of the sky and they see their philosophy as higher than other philosophies. Or their insignia are green because that is the color of plants and it symbolizes life and vitality. Or go in a totally different direction and say that they chose colors for maximum visibility and contrast and weren't thinking of symbolism at all. Etc. – Jay Feb 26 '19 at 22:51
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    @Galastel While I agree that the author (any author) has to think about such things and not choose them randomly, there's still a fair bit of leeway. There is red on the American flag, but it doesn't stand for blood. usflag.org/colors.html – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 26 '19 at 23:05
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Almost always it is legally fine. There is one major exception: Nazi symbology is banned in quite a few countries. And there are isolated examples of other symbols banned in individual countries, but those aren't commonly used or well known symbols (generally result of local strife, so symbols of local terrorist groups, etc.).

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  • Mainly I would actually be using just the insignia names themselves. I don't plan to have any pictorial references of any kind (aside from a global map of my alternate-earth). – MissouriSpartan Feb 26 '19 at 22:53
  • If you don't have pictures, it's less of an issue. Names of military ranks are fairly consistent around the world these days. If you mentioned that this person was a captain and that person was a sergeant, readers would not say, "They use Russian ranks?" because these ranks are common to many nations. If you said someone was a "colonel-general", a soviet rank between "general of the army" and "lieutenant general" okay, that's a soviet rank that just sounds funny to me and that most countries don't have, so that might stand out more. Still, unless you gave a complete list of ranks that ... – Jay Feb 26 '19 at 23:22
  • ... exactly matched soviet ranks, I doubt most readers would particularly notice. As to other symbols, it depends how specific you are. Saying that a soldier had an "infantry badge" would be no problem, I'm sure many nations have something like that. I don't know enough about the soviet military to name badges peculiar to them, but using something unusual might attract attention. Etc. – Jay Feb 26 '19 at 23:26

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