You don't need permission to dress up as a copyrighted character, but do you need permission to write about it?
October 30, 2012 10:41 AM   Subscribe

My novel involves a costume party with some guests dressed as recognizable characters from films, TV, etc. I'm clearly not trying to claim them as my own and it's just all Halloween costumes, but am I asking to get sued?

This is for a sequel to a self-published e-novel. I've got a big Halloween party sequence. Some people show up in generic costumes (ninja, doctor, zombie, etc), but main characters show up as the Ninth Doctor, Arthur Dent and a colonial marine a la "Aliens." So far I've also got one random guy in a Spider-Man costume.

The closest anyone comes to dropping quotes or adopting traits for the characters is when the guy dressed as Dent says he never got the hang of Thursdays and he ensures he has a towel. (He never actually manages to say "Arthur Dent" because he's always interrupted.) It's not a matter of going fan fic or anything like that so much as the characters themselves are avowed geeks.

I don't actually need to contact those copyright holders and get permission, do I? Does this count as fair use? Alternately, would a disclaimer noting no claim to ownership be good? I can't really do the "any resemblance to real or fictional characters is purely coincidental" thing when this is plainly deliberate.
posted by scaryblackdeath to Media & Arts (4 answers total)
Unless you're directly quoting movie lines, I don't think you've infringed on any copyrights. This has nothing to do with Fair Use. Writing a movie character costume into a novel is fine.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:47 AM on October 30, 2012

IANAL. I believe the name "Spider-Man" is protected by trademark. In theory, your character would have to say "How do you like my Spider-Man™ costume?" in order for your publication to be 100% legit.

In practice, the odds of your novel coming to Marvel's attention and then their deciding to sue you for omitting the trademark symbol - especially in this context - are about the same as your getting bitten by a radioactive spider.
posted by Egg Shen at 11:45 AM on October 30, 2012

I suspect you're having trouble getting answers to your question here from lawyers who would know, because you are literally asking for legal advice you intend to act on, robbing "I am not your lawyer, this is not legal advice" of some of its usual comforting warmth. If a lawyer gave you advice in this thread and it was wrong and you followed it, you could in fact hunt them down and get them in trouble if you felt like it. Which would be eponysterical.

So without offering legal advice, I'll just mention that a Google search for [refer to trademarked characters in writing] yields a couple of pages discussing this situation, and might get you started if you can't find an IP lawyer to give you a definitive answer.
posted by jhc at 12:23 PM on October 30, 2012

What about comic strips? Thinking of something like FoxTrot, that references and has portrayals of actual fictional characters all the time.

The same for TV shows and movies. Every year, characters dress up as other famous characters in their obligatory Halloween specials, and quote lines and everything.

Isn't the issue here more of taking a trademarked character and not misleading the public into thinking it's an officially sanctioned portrayal? (like the Obama campaign's "Big Bird" ads?)
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:58 AM on October 31, 2012

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