I'm currently writing my first novel and I can't figure out whether I am able to reference an abundance of different people, places, and/or things.

I've had this idea of wanting to sneak in a sizable amount of references into my novel of people places and/or things that I've come into contact with or loved as a kid growing up, many of which may end up being of the "if you know, you know" variant.

Suspension of disbelief isn't an issue, I've got that covered. This isn't a whole new world rather than a new landmass in our current world.

I want to use lyrics from their songs, along with quotes from other artists, and utilize AoTs military ranking system because it's extremely simple and effective and I want to have subtle references like someone saying "Run like the titans just broke through the walls" or "I don't suppose you can turn into a 50-ft-tall armored giant", or someone saying "That's rough, buddy".

Or lyrics like "Would you believe me if I said I wasn't build for love 'cause I can't even love myself" from Better Alone by Jake Hill or "There's a big difference between confidence and arrogance, you hearing this I know you don't get it now but you gone get it later" from Nate by NF

Even perhaps use quotes like "You can't hope for a horror story with a happy ending" by Eren Yeager

I know there is a certain amount of words (about 24) that one is able to directly quote before needing permission from the parties in question, but say I wanted to use more than the set number of words and I'm not able to get permission from those I quoted for whatever reason, not that they would ever read my book, but for simplicity's sake, let's say they did. What then?

Basically what I'm trying to say is: how much am I able to freely borrow and/or somewhat directly quote without there being any legal infringement on the referenced works.

  • 4
    You have to be careful not to break suspension of disbelief with things that are obviously part of our world that would be unknown or uncommon/unlikely in your world. They did a bunch of that in the TV series, Pandora, and it was very annoying.
    – Joe
    Mar 16, 2021 at 22:53
  • @Joe Can you elaborate on that, please? Mar 20, 2021 at 0:15
  • 2
    See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_of_disbelief . If your character knows nothing of present day earth and then says something like "Let's get out of Dodge.", an expression that we might understand, but that would be meaningless in the context of the story, that forces the reader to acknowledge that something is wrong and they are thinking about the writing and the author instead of being immersed in the story. This breaks the contract between the author and the reader because it is unbelievable within the story's own rules. Super annoying real example.
    – Joe
    Mar 20, 2021 at 4:03
  • 1
    The character that said that wasn't even a human or from earth. And he was in an advanced spaceship hundreds of years from now when such an idiom would likely be long forgotten. You want to draw readers into your story, not out of it.
    – Joe
    Mar 20, 2021 at 4:15
  • 1
    Figuring out who's likely to sue is a good starting point. Some authors and companies are notoriously litigious (JK Rowling and the Church of Scientology come to mind), and even if their case has little merit they will bankrupt you and stop publication, while others have let their material be used in other works or simply don't have the time and money to sue.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 24, 2021 at 10:13

5 Answers 5


There are at least three kinds of issues involved in the kind of thing described in the question: Intellectual Property (IP) issues, defamation issues, and suspension of disbelief issues.



Names and short phrases are not protected by copyright. Characters and invented settings can be, if they are sufficiently detailed and distinctive, but brief literary references to such characters and settings will almost always qualify as fair use, fair dealing, or some similar exception to copyright, depending on the country involved.

Literary references are used very frequently, and do not subject the authors to copyright liability.

The idea that "there is a certain amount of words (about 24) that one is able to directly quote before needing permission from the parties in question" is a myth. There is no such number. In some cases quotes of hundreds or even thousands of words have been judged acceptable, and in other cases a few words have resulted in a judgement of infringement. Under the US doctrine of "fair use" there are four factors top be considered, and the amount of the work used is only one of them, and then in proportion to the size of the source work. One line from a poem may be "bigger" than 5 pages from a novel or textbook.


Titles of works, the names of characters and other identifying phrases can be protected as trademarks. For example, I understand that "Gandalf" has been trademarked by the Tolkien estate.

But the protection given by a trademark is limited. A trademark primarily is meant to indicate the source of goods or services, and secondarily to indicate a reputation for quality. Trademarks are only protected against being "used in trade".

Any use which might plausible confuse reasonable people into thinking that a work comes from the trademark owner, or is endorsed, approved, or sponsored by the owner may be trademark infringement (unless permission was obtained).

So if Author A has written a series about "Joe the Great" and has trademarked that name, author B cannot label a new work "A Fresh 'Joe the Great' novel" without permission. But a book can be described, even on its cover as "More thrilling than Game of Thrones" without fear of infringement, and author B can have a brief cameo by Joe the Great in the work.


If an author writes a work in which a recognizable real living person C appears (whether under the person's own name or under an alias), and in the book the C character does bad things, such as committing serious crimes, C might sue for defamation. C would need to establish that readers would plausibly think the character represented the actual person C. C would also need to show that people did or were likely to think that the actions of the character were taken by readers as the actions of the real person: for example that the real C had committed such crimes. Given all that C might be able to win a suit for defamation. But such suits over a fictional portrayal are often hard to win. It must be clearly established that people are likely to view the real person less favorably because of the fictional portrayal.

In the past there were, I understand, a few cases where a disclaimer such as "No reference to any actual person is intended. All characters are fictional or are used fictitiously" helped avoid defamation claims, and it came to be common to include such a statement. I was amused when such a statement was on the copyright page of the SF novel Island in the Sea of Time by Stirling, and on the first page of the book was a character obviously based on the real person Harry Turtledove (an author of several somewhat similar works). But that character is shown in a generally positive light, and I doubt any defamation case was ever contemplated. Indeed I understand that Stirling and Turtledove are friendly. In any case, such a disclaimer will not overcome an obvious similarity, although it might help in a marginal case.

A realistic novel in which a character obviously based on a specific, clearly identifiable person, is shown in a significantly negative light, and in ways which might plausibly be attributed top the real person (for example a controversial politician being shown as corrupt) might be a plausible target for a defamation suit. But it is the effect on the real reputation of the real person which matters. There are other requirements for a successful defamation case, such as fact vs opinion, which I will not go into here. A question about this over on Law.SE might get a good response.

Suspension of Disbelief

We do not commonly use idioms and expressions from long ago, from other cultures that we know little of, or from worlds we have never heard of. For example "To the Crows with him" was (in Greek) an expression common in classic Greece, I understand, meaning something like "to hell with him" in modern English.

When in a fantasy or SF work, set in the far future or in some other world or universe altogether, a modern cliche phrased is used, it makes me wonder a bit and be pushed out of the story. If a Character in Game of Thrones said "Beam me up, Scotty!" I would think it out of place. Similarly if in a historical novel set in the 1700s a character started saying things like "way out" and "cool" I would be annoyed. (I recall being annoyed by a use of "OK" supposedly in the 1670s,)

Some readers are not bothered by this sort of thing. After all, the actual characters probably did not speak English at all, and we wouldn't understand whatever language they do speak. But use of overly specific terms and phrases does bother some readers.

Sometimes this is used for a joke. For example in The Case of teh Toxic Spell Dump people scared by an earth tremor in an alternate version of California are shown flocking to a church dedicated to St Andrew, or since it is a Hispanic neighborhood, "San Andreas". The narrator thinks to himself "Well if there is a quake it won't be San Andreas fault." But then that book is full of such jokes: the narrator examines what spells have been cast with a portable spellchecker.

I think it is usually better to avoid this sort of thing, but that is a choice of writing style, and what the author thinks readers might enjoy or dislike.

One can invent alternate versions of phrases or events in place of current references, although if one spends too much time and effort explaining them, the effect can be even worse.

  • My story takes place on a landmass in the Pacific in our world so suspension of disbelief isn't really a concern, moreso than all the other IP issues Sep 23, 2021 at 2:00

I looked through many articles in which people talked in detail about copyright protection, and nowhere did I find a ban on the use of references to real people in the text. From an ethical point of view, it is of course best to contact the person whose personality you want to use in the book whenever possible. In case you do not have enough connections or this is impossible for you, then take a person without using real names. This is the best way.

  • 1
    It doesn't have to work that way. Charles Platt (as a book reviewer) once insulted David Drake's writing. In the more than 30 years since, Drake has used the name "Charles Platt" in many stories. The "Charles Platt" characters are always low lifes, despicable, and often stupid. Drake has had no legal problems from that usage that I can find.
    – JRE
    Jul 20, 2021 at 16:29
  • 1
    There is no such ban. In some specific cases use of a real name, or of a recognizable person under a different name, can give rise to a successful defamation case. See my answer Sep 14, 2021 at 20:55

Names of people and places and unique objects -- The Liberty Bell Efiell Tower and so on -- cannot not be copyrighted. But the names of Performers and Companies and Products can be trademarked. If someone holds the trademark on a name you want to use then you'll either have to get permission from the holder -- in every country they hold the rights and you want to publish your work -- or pass a fair use test.

The fair use test is straightforward -- is your usage likely to be construed as the trademarked thingy. If so, is your use trivial or likely to damage the value of the trade mark. Trivial is in the eyes of the beholder and a court of a law. And, you can be held liable for monetary damages for the brand and/or loss of $$ for infringement.

  • This overstates the reach of trademark claims, and oversimplifies the concept of nominative use and other limits on trademark protection. It also invites confusion with the concept of "fair use" from copyright law, which does not apply in trademark cases, although nominative use is also called "nominative fair use". Sep 14, 2021 at 20:53
  • @EDL So you basically mean to make sure not to defame a trademarked brand of I do use it; to use it in it's intended way or to hold it in "good light",per se, correct? Sep 23, 2021 at 2:05
  • @KevM, I think I am saying that you should only use a trademarked name in your story, if it is really important and then you run risks that the holder may not like it and may take action. Assuming, they haven't given you permission.
    – EDL
    Sep 23, 2021 at 16:01

I've read the laws for a while, and it seems that there are no loopholes. You will just have to try to contact them (the rights owner) a little harder. For ATLA, you can contact ViacomCBS and so on, but there are no loopholes that I was able to find.


I know there is a certain amount of words (about 24)

I'd say work within this range. Not only is it a good exercise...I also think it will make for more captivating read when you "remix" the reference with your personal perspective.

Reading things like:

"As Harry walked into the room, "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel was playing and so he started singing along. ""Uptooown Girl....She's been living in her uptown world...."" - Which is a lazy example but hopefully you get that...

The reader has to make a whole lot of extra connections when you make reference to a commonly known idea. Which, if you add too much, that extra effort distracts from the context and disrupts flow, which will discourage readership. What's interesting about doing this though, is that the references aren't necessarily tied to the main sample, which is why I think managing this sort of thing with law is a fruitless endeavor. In this case I'm referencing Homer Simpson [Season 13; Episode 16] not Billy Joel and I wouldn't necessarily mention that as that isn't really an important detail to "Harry's" part in the story. But that's debatable too even as perhaps doing so would build suspense or just provide something left-field, depending on the context.

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