I went down a rabbit hole and now I’m climbing out.
One of my editors recently warned be against using brand names in my current manuscript, including the names of social media brands. Kudos to her for doing so. That’s part of her job, but it got me to thinking. If I can’t safely use the name of Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube without fear of some kind of action being taken against me, why is it that this is only a fear in the realm of fiction. I realize the likelihood of this happening to me is remote, but it is a fear nevertheless.
Why is it only a worry in fiction and not non-fiction or journalistic opinion writing? If I want to write an opinion piece on a blog, a newspaper editorial, etc., I’m virtually free to do so without fear. Furthermore, I’m free to make a video and post it online with the most vicious of criticism of brand names and I have little worry about being charged or attacked legally by those brands. We all know this. There is no shortage of videos, articles, non-fiction books, speeches, news accounts, blog articles, etc., where we can find this. It will often be found in large, on-the-radar publications too such as the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN. We don’t see the brands going after any of this. So why then, should it be a worry in fiction alone? Why are my free speech rights as an author not equal to those of non-fiction content creators?
After going through my current and yet unpublished manuscript to change all instances of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc., and changing them to the generic “social media,” I got more and more pissed that it might be necessary to do so. It wasn’t easy because it wasn’t just a matter of search and replace. Each of the instances had to be considered and likely reworked, if not removed entirely.
There is no shortage of articles and opinions on the Interwebs with caution about the use of brand names. Just Google (oops, I did it again) “brand names in fiction” and you will see a vast array of caution. Some even warn that portraying their use, even in benign ways, subjects authors to action against them. Knowing that I’d be off the radar of these companies is of little comfort. Why? Because unless my book becomes a runaway hit, the brands would have no reason to even pursue me, but the threat is always there. The statistical odds that it will be a runaway hit approaches zero, but then again, don’t all authors writing a book at least have a fantasy of this happening? Of course, because the odds are not zero. They’re only 0.00000001, which means, it could happen. Please forgive my delusions.
I’ve read plenty of armchair quarterback opinions about it. I’ve even read opinions of noted legal professionals. They all say the same thing. “Proceed at your own peril,” while simultaneously saying “here’s how you might be safe doing it.” Typical lawyer-speak. As an example, I had a sentence in my manuscript with a humorous line about a judge that stood up in the courtroom and his robe opened accidentally, revealing his pink Speedo. Now, one could argue this portrays the Speedo brand in a bad light, right? But there is virtually no way to reword that without the brand and still maintain the image I wanted to portray. What am I going to say, “the judge’s robe flew open, revealing a bright pink, tightly bound pink article of swimwear”? Yeah. No thanks.
My manuscript is heavily laden with social media references. Social media is an important part of the plot and frankly, not being able to use the brand names makes it too awkward and less powerful. It’s a joke that this limitation seems only to be an issue with fiction and not with other forms of communication. I spent an entire day yesterday trying to remove the brand names. It was hell and I hated it. Now, I’m pissed enough about the subject and I’m going to undo everything I did yesterday and leave the brand names as they should be. Tip toeing around the actual names is as bad as political correctness as far as I’m concerned, so the hell with it.
I can only hope the book is successful enough to bring the charges that so many fear. I’m an independent author, so I don’t have any pressure from a publisher. I’m not throwing ‘caution to the wind,’ to use a dreaded fiction author’s cliché, I’m just playing the odds. 0.00000001 chance of it hurting me is pretty good odds.