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I have a novel in mind to write and I want to name the main two characters after two minor characters in Star Trek. They are not at all alike or connected in any way, but Star Trek is very important to me and it's more of a nod or a tribute to Star Trek than anything else. I thought about dropping the idea because of copyright worries, but I'm kind of attached to the names now and when I picture my two characters, I keep coming back to those names. Again, I don't want to run into copyright issues. The Star Trek characters are minor, but most Trekkies would recognize the names. Is there a potential for copyright issues in naming two characters after minor Star Trek characters?

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While names cannot be copyrighted, they can be trademarked. You would have to research if that is the case for the names you want to use. You can use trademarked names in a novel (e.g. your character can drive a BMW or talk about Harry Potter), but you cannot use trademarked names in marketing, so you should not name your protagonists using a trademarked name, because your protagonists' names will very likely appear in marketing, e.g. the blurb.

Also, when you name your protagonists after well-known characters in another (popular) work, it could be argued that you are trying to use the popularity of the other work to market your own.

Writers do quite often name characters (or other entities) after authors they admire or characters (or other entities) in works they want to play hommage to, but they usually do it this way:

  • They don't name protagonists but minor characters that don't drive the main plot and appear only once or a few times.

  • They don't use the full name but only a recognizable part of the name, e.g. the last name.

  • They make sure the character (or entity) is clearly different (e.g. an old sailor named Captain Kirk, but not a spaceship captain).

If your usage of the name makes it clear that it is an hommage, then you will likely not have a problem. If your usage could appear as if you were using the popularity of the other work to drive readers to your own, you could have problems.

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Character names can't be copyrighted. Trademark is a different subject, but that doesn't necessarily apply to writing a novel.

With regard to copyright, you can certainly write a Star Trek based novel using characters from the movies or series or novelizations, but without permission to use the IP you can't sell the novel. That would be a clear case of infringement. Character names you can do whatever you want. Put James T Kirk in a pizza parlor with Khan Noonien Singh and you're fine. But creating stories in the Star Trek Universe with the Federation and any of that stuff without the permission of copyright and possibly trademark holders and you are infringing on their property.

The guiding principle is that you can't make money of their property. Nor can you diminish the value of their property by creating public works using their IP -- unless its a parody, then its okay.

What it sounds like you are writing is fan-fic, where you are not trying to make $$$ from your writing. If its not published and its not publicly viewable, then you'd have no problem. And, if you did push the novel out on a fan-fic sight to share with other fans, its likely the owners of Star Trek wouldn't take action. That fan base is their customer base and it doesn't serve anyone's interest to antagonize the people that give you money.

But it has happened. Anne McCaffrey threatened legal action against a fan-fic site that shared fan-authored stories set in the world of Pern. She did this to protect her literary rights. I expect this was a narrow case in the early days of the web, where the majority of the content was written in the days of dial-up and computer bulletin boards that were subsequently accessible on the World Wide Web. I don't know the details, but all the site would need to do was put the content behind a account login to make it 'private.'

Fortunately, the first legal action is a cease and desist letter. If you comply, you can't face any additional jeopardy, conceptually. As with most topics about copyright and the law it is murky.

If Star Trek and this story you've thought up is inspiring you enough to write novel, then go for it. Don't expect to publish it and you'll be fine. Share it with friends and you're fine.

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  • I understand the OP to say that her characters are not related to 'Star Trek', she is just borrowing the names. Oct 12, 2023 at 8:26
  • @KateBunting, you might be right. my first impression was the story was set in a roddenberyverese. I do address the subject of just using character names in non trek stories.
    – EDL
    Oct 12, 2023 at 12:33
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    I think Anne McCaffery acted to protect her literary rights, not her literacy rights. Writing fan fiction set in Pern wouldn't deprive her of the ability to read and write. Oct 12, 2023 at 17:53
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Have you ever read the great but old fashioned science fiction space opera Lensman series, by Edward Elmer Smith, published in magazines from 1934 to 1948 and in somewhat revised book form from 1948 to 1954?

The main protagonist is Kimball Kinnison.

The main protagonist of Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim (1901) is Kimball O'Hara, an orphan boy living in British India in the late 19th century.

Another famous science fiction writer was "Cordwainer Smith" a pen name of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (1913-1966).

Linebarger is long rumored to have been "Kirk Allen", the fantasy-haunted subject of "The Jet-Propelled Couch," a chapter in psychologist Robert M. Lindner's best-selling 1954 collection The Fifty-Minute Hour.[2][9] According to Cordwainer Smith scholar Alan C. Elms,[10] this speculation first reached print in Brian Aldiss's 1973 history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree; Aldiss, in turn, claimed to have received the information from science fiction fan and scholar Leon Stover.[11] More recently, both Elms and librarian Lee Weinstein[12] have gathered circumstantial evidence to support the case for Linebarger's being Allen, but both concede there is no direct proof that Linebarger was ever a patient of Lindner's or that he suffered from a disorder similar to that of Kirk Allen.[13]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordwainer_Smith

When I read The Fifty Minute Hour I knew that Lindner used fake names for his patients to protect their privacy. And Lindner wrote that science fiction writer "Paul Allen" had a protagonist with the same name as a Kipling protagonist, so naturally I wondered whether "Paul Allen" was E.E. Smith until years later when I read the speculation about Linebarger being the patient.

If Linebarger really was Lindner's patient "Paul Allen", Lindner may have used his pen name of "Cordwainer Smith" to think of famed science fiction writer E.E. Smith, and thus look for some detail which would make some readers think of E.E. Smith, while giving details of "Paul Allen"'s life which were inconsistent with Smith's, to create uncertainty.

And I have to admit that even though I have read Kim once and saw the 1950 movie, The Fifty Minute Hour convinced me that Kim was named Kimball Kinnison, not Kimball O'hara. Only today, when I wrote this answer, did I notice that Kim was named Kimball O'Hara and not Kimball Kinnison.

Still, there are two famous fictional protagonists who have the same unusual first name.

Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719 which inspired a number of "robinsonade" stories of castaways, including Swiss Family Robinson (1812). Gold Key Comics published Space Family Robinson about a family named Robinson lost in outer space on and off from 1962-1982. And Gold Key noticed when Irwin Allen, 20th Century Fox, and CBS produced a tv series Lost in Space (1965-1968) about a family named Robinson who were lost in space, but they came to an agreement.

I note that George MacDonald Frazer's Flashman series of novels begins when teenage Harry Paget Flashman is expelled from Rugby School. And he is stated to be the bully Flashman in Tom Brown's School Days (1857) by Thomas Hughes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Flashman

Of course the copyright of Tom Brown's School Days would have run out, and probably the name of Flashman was never trademarked.

Anyway, there are a few examples when the names of major characters appear in different works of fiction.

But reusing the names of major characters in your own fiction is probably rather risky.

In my humble opinion I think that using the names or parts of the names of fictional characters in your own stories is probably safe if you have a major character with the name of a minor character or a minor character with the name or a major character, or a minor character with the name of a minor character, and if the characters merely share names and have few other traits in common.

By the way, some Star Trek alien characters have alien names which are also Earth names. So if you give a human character one of those names there will real life persons and other fictional characters that your character might be named after.

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