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I’m working on a sci-fi project for a major franchise and it focuses heavily on sci-fi tech terms and science concepts and terms. Lots of the terms I invented but some I found on Internet forums like Reddit and others. Am I allowed to use them if they are not used in an official source?

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  • If it's actually a major franchise, wouldn't they already have a fair amount of their terminology hammered out? Make sure you're not reinventing the wheel (or worse, introducing wheels into a story about hovercrafts.)
    – Jedediah
    Aug 28, 2022 at 4:52

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Someone cannot own a copyright on a word or short phrase. This is explicitly spelled out in copyright law. So like whoever the first person was to use the term "warp drive", he doesn't own a copyright to that term because it's simply not copyrightable.

You CAN own a trademark to a word or short phrase. Like if you wrote your own story and called it "Star Trek", the people who actually own the Star Trek brand could sue you for trademark violation. Not copyright violation, but trademark violation.

Trademarks can be registered or unregistered. If someone registered a trademark, then you are asking for trouble if you try to use it yourself. Maybe you could challenge the trademark in court, but if they registered the trademark, they presumably think that they own it, and if you use it they are likely to sue you. You might win, but you'd have to pay lawyers and fight it court.

If they didn't register the trademark, things are iffier. Does it refer to an identifiable product? Is the term original? Like as I say, "Star Trek", even if it was never registered, is clearly identified as the name of a TV show and a series of movies, so you'd have a hard time challenging that. But "warp drive" does not identify any recognizable product. And indeed I think you will see that many science fiction books, movies, and TV shows use the term "warp drive".

"Stargate" would be tricky. There's clearly a movie and TV shows called by this name. But the term "stargate" was around in science fiction circles long before that show was made, so they'd have a hard time defending it in court. But they might try, and unless you can afford lawyers to fight them, you might find yourself overwhelmed in a legal battle.

Like, when "Battlestar Galactica" came out, the people who owned "Star Wars" sued claiming it violated their copyrights and trademarks. In my humble opinion, they didn't have a legal leg to stand in. And a court eventually ruled in favor of Galactica, basically saying that you can't own a copyright to a general idea like "people fighting in space". But the legal battle dragged on for years and cost both sides a lot of money.

So my advice would be: When there's a term that's been used in many science fiction stories and discussions of technology, like "warp drive" or "shuttle craft", go ahead and use it. If it's the name of a particular book or TV show or movie, like "Star Trek" or "Star Wars", don't use it except to refer to that particular book etc. If it's a hazy case, I'd try to make up some other word. Like if I wanted to discuss the scientific plausibility of stargetes, I wouldn't say "stargate", I'd make up another term.

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  • Great. Thank you!
    – Max
    Aug 22, 2022 at 1:21
  • The term "Jump Gate" is commonly used to describe the titular technology in Stargate: A device that achieves FTL travel by teleporting or creating a wormhole between two fixed points in space.
    – hszmv
    Aug 22, 2022 at 11:46

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