Sunday, May 14, 2006

Literature and Libel

Fred E. Diggan III sends a fan letter and a question:
I've read the short story adaptation of Cyberpunk twice and the complete version once. I've found it to be very entertaining and, as an aspiring writer, very inspirational. I am a 42 year old mega computer geek. I've had aspirations of becoming a writer as early as the fourth grade. I have a desire to write about what I know best and that's our wonderful world of technology. I however am stopped dead in my tracks by the fears of copyright infringement. In my writings I always feel it a major detail to include words like "Windows *",and so forth. I do not have any desire to talk about any trademarked materials in a derogative way, but the fear of possible suit always haunts me. After reading your story. I feel if I write appropriate disclaimers and give the works away, I may be okay. This would give me an opportunity to gain experience and possibly gain feedback from the most important of critics, the reader. I also have hopes that the reader may experience what I have from reading Cyberpunk.
First off, Fred, thanks for the kind words. They're always appreciated.

As for your question: I'm afraid that libel is libel, regardless of whether or not you make any money off it, so giving the work away for free doesn't really protect you. Given that reality, why not try and publish your work? One bright side to doing so is that most publishers maintain staffs of copyeditors and lawyers who are well versed in trademark and libel law, and who will make sure that you a.) use trademarks such as Microsoft® Windows® correctly, and b.) don't publish anything that might be libelous or actionable. Usually this latter goal can be achieved by doing something as simple as changing the company's name to Microsnot or MegaSoft, or changing the operating system's name to Ventana VDx or something like that.

Of course, usage is everything. You're probably safe writing, "John blew his nose on a Kleenex®." You're probably not safe writing, "[Trademarked brand name] tissues were invented by a cabal of Satanists, and everytime you sneeze and someone fails to say 'God bless you,' the tissue steals a tiny bit of your soul."

Even if you aren't writing for professional publication, though, but really do want to just put your work out there so that people can read and comment on it (which is an experience the web excels at delivering), why not make up trademarks and company names if you're in doubt? When you're writing contemporary or near-future fiction, it's pretty easy to make up company and product names that sound real but aren't, and often more effective (or at least funnier) to do so.

On the other hand, if you're writing non-fiction, remember this: The truth is always proof against libel. You can write anything you want, provided you can make the case that what you've written is true.

Hope this helps,