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So, I know that questions regarding the usage of real-life company names has been brought up before, but this is a really weird example that I've run into that doesn't seem covered by the previous examples.

I don't know if this is the case for other countries, but in North America in addition to the major chains that everyone thinks of when fast food is brought up (e.g., McDonalds, Domino's, KFC, Subway) there are a number of smaller regional chains that are unique to certain areas. For example:

  • Tim Horton's is located predominantly in Canada and the states bordering Canada across the Great Lakes, to the point that Canadians eating at Tim Horton's is practically a Canadian stereotype.
  • Sonic is a drive-in burger chain based out of Oklahoma and is primarily found in the American Deep South where the weather is warm enough for their business model to work. Whataburger is a similar chain located primarily in Texas and Oklahoma. Locals in Oklahoma and Texas love eating at Sonic and Whataburger, to the point that when I've visited the state the local McDonalds tended to be rather empty.
  • In-N-Out is a similar drive-in burger chain that is primarily located in California and is really popular among Californians. There are a couple of other chains which are common along the Pacific Coast.
  • Taco John's and Arctic Circle are two really weird examples that are virtually unique to the Rocky Mountain states like Utah, Wyoming, and the surrounding regions.

These fast food chains are often notable parts of the local culture of an area and can do a pretty good job of setting the different regions of North America apart. I.e., if you wandered out of the woods after being lost and saw a Tim Horton's, you're probably in Canada. I have a case where I have a story set in a particular region of the United States, and there was a minor comedic subplot that included one of these regional franchises. I wanted to include a reference to this fast food franchise to make the setting seem more authentic: i.e., readers that had been to the region would go "oh, the author does know what life is like in that state" rather than just depicting the region as a genetic flyover state with the numbers filed off.

The issue is I'm worried about the legality of the whole thing. The idea was that a teenage character gets a part-time job working at this fast food restaurant, and its your typical soul-crushing burger-flipping job that many young people go through in the Western world, played for fish-out-of-water comedy because the character is a nonhuman being with no social skills. The character ends up getting fired, but they're fired because of their own flaws. What I'm worried is that this will get me in legal trouble because it will be seen as disparaging to the chain. The chain has hundreds of locations, so it's not like I'm making fun of a very small chain. And the comedy is just generic "teenager hates being forced to work a fast food job" than anything specifically aimed at the franchise. I liked the fact that I was able to include the reference as there aren't a ton of thing in that part of the U.S. that scream "this is set in this state", but at the same time I don't want to get sued for defamation.

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Avoiding Hot Water:

Sonic and Taco John's are actually more wide-spread, but I get the point. People in the region are likely to get oblique references (Mount Rose MN vs. Rosemount MN in the movie Drop Dead Gorgeous) while people outside the area are unlikely to get the reference at all unless they Google it (if you saw the movie, did you know there was a Rosemount MN?). Better to avoid the issue, but I'll admit it would make nice color.

So You are safer with Tom Hirens and out-N-in, and Taco Jane's, but google it first before using it, because turning Whataburger into Wahlburger might inadvertently cause you to infringe on a company you've never heard of but that is real. You can even make this funny, like in Coming to America where McDowell's has the golden arcs instead of the golden arches and is worried about infringement. At that point, it moves into social commentary and might be protected as free speech.

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As this is clearly fictional, there shouldn't be any issue with a depiction of a real fast food company, so long as you're not using any trademark imagery in your work (Names are fine because it's a name. McDonald's can't really copyright their own name, but they can get you on any stylization of it, such as the "Golden Arches"). At this level, most companies don't care as it's free publicity.

At the worst I've seen, the book series Animorphs revealed in one book that a local McDonald's (yes, they explicitly stated it was this chain) had a secret passage way to an alien base of operation for a secret invasion of earth, which also doubled as an enslavement camp as well. Not only that, but to open the door (located in a supply closet) the customer had to order "A Happy Meal with extra 'Happy'" at the register. Given that the alien menace were themselves brain-control slugs, not only did it imply that this one restaurant was an entrance to the secret base for the aliens, but also that all employees working there were secretly under the control of alien mind control slugs and McDonalds was a front organization for the aliens.

That said, it wasn't always used like this. The main alien front organization was a Boy/Girl Scouts org (explicitly likened to those two orgs) called "The Sharing" which serves the purpose of not only getting around some policy blocks using either organization as front org (namely, the aliens weren't focusing on one gender) but also avoided putting either org too close to some real accusations, especially with child exploitation by sexual predators coming to light around the time the books were published.

I would say as long as you're not being too mean spirited with the work. Books tend to get off lightly because film and tv rely on something that books do not: Advertising revenue. You don't want to piss off a chain when they might be looking to buy ad time in your show or product placement in your film (or tv show). Generally writers won't be on that decision making process and will only be asked to change the products once the marketing makes the deal. While Michael Bay never wanted to do Bumblebee as a Beatle in the first Transformers film, he didn't have the muscle car he was going to use in mind until GM realized the Transformers franchise was nothing but one big toy commercial, and they offered to supply all the toys (As did the U.S. Military... but one of Bay's strengths is making them look good, so they were more than sold on having their toys be the badass villains).

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If you have a character who drives a Porsche, would you change that to an imaginary car brand? Probably not. Your readers will both know what a Porsche is and have certain specific associations which you want to evoke.

If you want to tell a (fictional) story about mismanagement and worker exploitation, the details of which you have made up, do you expect a real company to keep quiet about you slandering them? Certainly not. As a self-respecting author you will avoid misrepresenting people or companies.

If you want to disclose the truth about someone or some company and you have proof of that truth and are prepared to engage in a year-long and exhausting legal battle, by all means, publish what you know and cite your sources.

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  • I think you might be reading too much into the question. I'm not writing a 21st century version of The Jungle. I'm making a joke about how teenagers hate minimum-wage McJobs, which seems to be a pretty universal and uncontroversial position regardless of brand, but mentioning an IRL chain because it has specific associations with the geographic area. Apr 21 at 22:16

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